The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me 1990
- Rhyme & Form: End-Rhyme in the final stanza
- Tone: Factual, Remembering
- Imagery: Paris
- Themes: Relationship between genders, Suffering, Time and Memory
- Poetic Techniques: Alliteration, Repetition
The title of this poem is important – it refers to an object or a gift but also to a relationship between mother and daughter. There are many underlying features here, especially when considering the fan – it can suggest a woman, elegance, beauty, the past but it can also symbolise something romantic and quite erotic. Boland may also be contemplating the relationship between man and woman and in particular how society places women ‘Outside History’. Does the man, by giving the woman an object purely for women, try to control the woman and make her his subordinate? Is he turning her into an object of sexual desire?
The story behind the poem goes like this: her father gave the fan to Boland’s mother during a heatwave in Paris in the 1930s. Her mother passed down the black lace fan to her daughter as a symbol of love but would Boland completely accept the fan if she suspected that it was given to her mother for any of the reasons mentioned above? Nevertheless, throughout the poem we can see that Boland views the fan as a reminder of the passing of time and the complex relationship between genders.
It was the first gift he ever gave her
We can see from line 1 that this gift was an important and special gift as it was the first one her father ever gave her mother – an expression of love, but also practical in the heat. It would have been very easy for her father to find a newspaper to act as a fan and perhaps, that was what he was looking for but on the way his eye may have caught the sight of this graceful object of desire. Obviously since Boland was not yet born, she was not a spectator to this story and what she recalls here in The Black Lace Fan is a story that was passed on. Boland uses poetic licence to reinvent the story:
buying it for five francs in the Galleries
in pre-war Paris. It was stifling.
A starless drought made the nights stormy.
When re-telling a story it is almost impossible to recount it word for word but the phrase, ‘It was stifling.’ may well have been verbatim simply for due to the sentence being so short: imagine a scenario where you are in a foreign country experiencing a heatwave – the less words you speak, the less energy is used up – it is almost as if the heat is preventing elaboration. Boland goes on to re-tell a story that took place fifty years prior to composing the poem. In the second stanza Boland imagines parts of the story but also gives us the facts:
They stayed in the city for the summer.
They met in cafes. She was always early.
He was late. That evening he was later.
They wrapped the fan. He looked at his watch.
We are given the facts in the first four lines of this stanza but Boland imagines her father waiting impatiently for the fan to be wrapped, knowing that ‘He was late.’ We are given some insight into their characters in this stanza also:
She was always early.
He was late.
Boland employs some good techniques in stanza three as she describes her mother waiting:
She looked down the Boulevard des Cappucines.
She ordered more coffee. She stood up.
The streets were emptying. The heat was killing.
She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.
Tension and suspense are built up here – the sentences are kept to a minimum and we are constantly wondering, much like Boland’s mother, what is keeping him so long? Unfortunately we are kept in the dark, Boland does not continue the story but it is safe to assume that her father got there at some stage. Instead Boland focuses on the fan itself:
These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand,
darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.
The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,
clear patience of its element. It is
Note that Boland uses the word ‘These’ implying that the fan is now before her, it not imagined as the Paris scene was:
a worn-out, underwater bullion and it keeps,
Even now, an inference of its violation.
The lace is overcast as if the weather
it opened for and offset had entered it.
Boland dwells on the fan that her mother gave her and gives us a detailed description of it. She contemplates how the fan was made (she had no way of knowing how it was made) and the line length is now much longer than before, mirroring her mind at work. Boland describes the floral design – note the use of verbs and adverbs1. There is a contrast in the fabric and the hard tortoiseshell, which is associated with concealment but Boland also mentions that the shell may have been violated (hinting at how the tortoise would have to have been removed from its home – colonisation?) Boland now dwells on how the fan’s origins, which would have to have involved some sort of destruction – the shell had to have been broken and carved, Boland calls it ‘worn-out’ and it is almost as if the it is aware of its former glory and knows that it has been abused or violated. This is a direct contrast to the romantic natures of the fan alluded to earlier. In Object Lessons Boland says that she sees the fan, a traditional erotic object, not as a sign of triumph and acquisition, but as a sign of suffering. Boland does not see the fan as an emblem of power, control or possession but as the passing of time. In her own words, ‘ordinary objects seemed to warn me that the body might share the world but could not own it.’
Once again Boland is not giving in to her sentimental side – the emotions associated with fan are in the past. In fact Boland calls this poem a ‘back-to-front love poem’. Line 24 is critical here as Boland states that the only way of reconstructing the past is through improvisation. Boland gives us a scene filled with drama in stanza six – a man rushing to meet his love in Paris, bringing with him his first gift:
The past is an empty café terrace.
An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.
And no way now to know what happened then –
none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:
Boland was not part of this exchange, there is ‘no way now to know’ so she must imagine or invent the scene. In line 23, ‘now’ and ‘then’ are key (re-read emphasising these words) – Boland knows that the past is the past and there is no way to change it or to re-live it if you were not part of the moment, therefore she must recreate the scene, the feelings, the emotions. Boland mentioned that the fan is ‘worn-out’ and ‘faded’ and this could symbolise how her parent’s relationship has grown old but Boland concludes the poem with a fresh outlook:
The blackbird on this first sultry morning,
in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,
feels the heat. Suddenly she puts out her wing –
the whole, full flirtatious span of it.
Boland connects her scene in Ireland with the snippet from Paris in the 30s as when her mother gave her the fan it was a symbol of love and continuity, Boland wants this same continuity between the fan, her parents, Ireland and Paris. Boland was unable to fully experience the emotions that her mother felt when she first received the gift but the poet does catch a glimpse of something similar in the blackbird’s wing. Boland is concentrating on the passing of time here – the fan is old, altered by time and growing old as the lovers grew old. But the poet is able to see the fan in a different light by examining the blackbird’s wing, which to Boland is an equivalent to the black lace fan. The bird’s fan is full, unlike the broken shell and is natural and in its element, once again in contrast to the shell. The ‘full, flirtatious span of it.’ is a description of the bird’s wing but it could also be describing the very moment when her mother first opened the fan – ‘Suddenly’ implies surprise, which may also have been felt by her mother.
Boland is asking us to examine the relationship between men and women but to also dwell on time and memory – we are to imagine an emotion or a scene that we were absent from and try to connect ourselves to the tale. It is then possible to find a moment, an image or an object that allows us to experience the feelings of those that were actually present to the story.