In ‘Is it Still the Same,’ Boland explores the evolution of the self over time by examining routines and how things can change while appearing to stay the same. The text can be read as metapoetry due to the fact the narrator appears to be observing their younger self-writing, having put their child to bed.
‘Is it Still the Same‘ is a deeply introspective critique of poetic inspiration and the evolution of the artist over time.
The poem begins with a series of questions regarding the identity of the poet’s central figure, a woman who goes to a room to write, seemingly after putting a child to bed. The many questions create an uncertain tone, with the narrator either unsure or unwilling to offer clarity. As the poem progresses, it appears that the narrator may, in fact, be a later iteration of the writer, looking back on her past attempts to write. Ultimately, the narrator takes pleasure in the fact that they now have the benefit of experience and perspective, which she imagines will make writing easier in the future.
You can read the full poem here.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 and, despite spending significant periods abroad, died in the city in 2020, having attended Trinity College Dublin in her youth. ‘Is it Still the Same‘ was first published in Boland’s 2001 collection, Code, which contained some of her most introspective work. Both the poem and the collection are preoccupied with the manner in which things have changed over time.
Boland’s life coincided with a period of immense change in Ireland, having been born less than thirty years after the Irish War of Independence. Dublin itself also changed dramatically during her lifetime, as a result of commissioned works to celebrate icons of the newly independent nation and later by the influx of wealth during what became known as the Celtic Tiger. Finally, having initially struggled to gain respect in the male-dominated Irish poetry scene in the 1960s, Boland also had to contend with her own evolving reputation, which, by the time of this poem’s conception, had exceeded all her expectations.
young woman who climbs the stairs,
who closes a child’s door,
who goes to her table
in a room at the back of a house?
The decision not to capitalize the poem’s first word allows these four lines to be read as an extended question that begins with the title. This gives the poem a sense of urgency to reflect the narrator’s panic at seemingly not being able to recognize the woman or the location in which they find themselves.
The fact that the woman closes the child’s door before heading to write could symbolize the expectation that women would prioritize domestic matters before thinking of their career ambitions. This is strengthened by the fact the room in which she writes is at the “back” of the house, metaphorically showing that her writing is something hidden away.
The same unlighted corridor?
The same inky sky and pin-bright stars?
These lines feature several reminders of the darkness surrounding the woman, as demonstrated by the adjectives “unlighted” and “inky.” This could be intended to reflect the dark period of the figure’s life, where they felt unable to write, which appears all the starker when viewed in hindsight, as it seems to be by the narrator. Similarly, the repeated use of rhetorical questions illustrates the uncertainty of the narrator, whose experience of the house is so different from what it once was that they are unsure whether it is the same place at all. Boland uses these questions to emphasize how much our personal experience of a particular place influences our memories of it.
You can see nothing of her, but her head
moving again, and her hair.
The repetition of the pronoun “her” establishes a contrast between the narrator and the woman writing, in spite of the fact they appear to be the same person. Boland thereby showcases people’s tendency to create distance from their former selves, having long since forgotten the contexts in which they acted. Curiously, the poet places emphasis on the verb “moving” to reinforce the fact that the poem is concerned with evolution and change. The writer may well have felt hopeless and thought that they were not making any progress; it is only when the narrator looks back later that they can see how much progress they were making at the time.
I wrote like that once.
This time, when she looks up, I will be there
The final three lines feature the personal pronoun “I” for the first time, as though the narrator is finally ready to insert themselves into the scene. By claiming that they “wrote like that once”, the narrator juxtaposes the earlier distance between themselves and the writer by highlighting their similarities. However, while the earlier descriptions were largely physical details regarding the writer’s stature, this line is more ambiguous in its scope. It is perhaps more likely that the narrator believes their similarities are rooted in their artistic ambitions rather than the exact way in which they were sitting, given the fact those details were likely to have remained the same.
This view is supported by the final line, which comforts the writer by metaphorically stating that, when she writes, in the future, the narrator “will be there.” If, as the poem suggests, they are the same person, then this would be a temporal impossibility. However, the narrator is actually attempting to say that when they write in the future, they will do so with the benefit of experience and success, which they feel will help eradicate the feelings of stagnation and doubt that they can hardly believe they ever used to feel.
The title functions as a microcosm of the poem insofar as it evokes the preoccupation with stagnation while simultaneously representing change. The ambiguous word “it” helps draw the reader in as they want to discover what the narrator is observing, even before they can deduce whether or not it has remained the same. The title mirrors the universal feelings of doubt, especially regarding our own lives, as we are not always very adept at judging the progress of our own lives.
Finally, the fact the title, which appears to be a question, is not punctuated encourages the reader to immediately read on, reminding them how difficult it is to consider stagnation in a world that never stops.
This description serves two principal functions. Firstly, it offers a glimmer of light and hope against the previously dark backdrop. Secondly, the reference to pins could allow the stars to be metaphorically interpreted as ideas for writing, which the figure has pinned on a board. This interpretation is supported by the fact the night is described as “inky,” which allows the entire sequence to be an extended metaphor for the writing process; there is lots of writing and, within it, some shining moments of inspiration.
Eavan Boland had two daughters, and one or both could have influenced her decision to mention the child’s bedroom in this poem. Her experience as a mother greatly informed her work, and she regularly used domestic settings in her poem, often to frame much larger narratives or, in this poem, to remind people of the difficulties of having a career while taking on the ‘second shift.’
Boland returned to Irish mythology throughout her writing career, often using it as a means to explore or critique modern life. Her 2001 collection, Code, from which ‘Is it Still the Same‘ is taken, is largely concerned with domestic life, being a woman in Ireland, and the retrospective exploration of Boland’s earlier life as a writer.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Is it Still the Same‘ might like to explore other Eavan Boland poems. For example:
- ‘Quarantine‘ – Also taken from Code, this iconic poem depicts a husband and wife who were forced to move north during the Great Irish Famine in 1847.
- ‘This Moment‘ – A stunning poem that focuses on the beauty of a specific moment, knowing full well that, once it ends, things will never be the same again.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘In Memory of My Mother‘ by Patrick Kavanagh – A deeply moving poem that recalls the memory of a loved one and depicts the act of remembering in an especially interesting way.
- ‘The Net‘ by Julie O’Callaghan – Another poem concerned with memory, this time focusing on childhood and the things we may wish to forget.