May 2021: Eavan Boland’s “The Just Use of Figures” & Kiss’s “Hard Luck Woman”

This month I chose to discuss a poem by Eavan Boland because the end of April marks a year since her sudden passing away and I wanted to take this time to honor her and her work. I was devastated when I found out she’d died; I had always hoped to have the opportunity to meet her or possibly work with her. I first discovered Boland’s poetry as an undergrad in an Irish Literature class and immediately began the process of collecting her books. I found and purchased an autographed hardback copy of Code at the Half Price Books in Dallas. I also have a wonderful book of hers called A Poet’s Dublin that pairs her poetry with photographs she took of the Dublin area. Boland was a poet dedicated to her environment—she was born in Dublin and she died in Dublin. She was Irish and feminist and her work always conversed with those aspects of her identity in ways that were very inspiring to me as a poet who is also feminist and rooted in a particular environment (Texas).

I want to talk about a poem called “The Just Use of Figures” from her newest collection of poems The Historians which came out posthumously back in October of 2020. It’s the final part of a three-part poem titled “Three Ways in Which Poems Fail.” What I like about this poem encompasses much of what I like about Boland’s work in general: the personal tone of her voice and the way she uses poetry to set scenes that she often deconstructs with care and beauty. It begins “Silence was a story, I thought, / on its own and all to itself. Then / the storm came.” Then, it ventures into a series of images that correspond to the nature of storms:

the doors of the ocean were open
to a wind with an appetite
for roadside bins, roofs,
treetops, the painted henhouse
made to stop foxes that blew away
as lightly as the hat the woman failed
to hold onto as she walked past
Stephen’s Green

I love the series of images she chooses here. In most of Boland’s poetry, her images are usually crisp, but in this collection, her images feel as if she painted them—they feel especially curated. In this poem, much of what happens in the first part sets up the final part of the poem which begins: “Hours earlier / it was quiet in the garden.” I like this line so much because it brings in that personal tone Boland is so good at threading throughout her poems. It feels as though she’s talking directly to the reader as if they were a close friend or a neighbor. Here’s the last part of the poem:

Outside the window it seemed
a space had opened up, an emptiness.
I knew then what I wanted
to write was not storms
or wet air, it was something
else: a metaphor and yet
what was made for language
when language cannot carry
meaning failed here.

Boland often inserts internal thought into her poems in ways that amplify the experience of what’s being shown. Here it’s the storm. She uses images to describe what a storm does and talks about the storm as a metaphor for something deeper that a poem can’t articulate. This is what is meant by “Three Ways in Which Poems Fail.” Here, the just use of figures pertains to the images that paint a picture, but don’t tell the larger story Boland wants to tell. The last few lines connect to the beginning of the poem: “Instead / I learned in the hushed garden / before the wind rose what / I needed to know. Silence told the story.” She realizes what she already implicitly understood, but with a deeper understanding, which is that so much of what is contained in a profound experience resides within silence—what isn’t said, what merely is. It can’t be explained poetically. I think much of Boland’s poetry makes space for those silences without drawing attention to them; that’s what makes her work so captivating to me. What she doesn’t say is just as poignant as what she does say.

I decided I wanted to discuss Kiss’s “Hard Luck Woman”—from the group’s fifth album Rock and Roll Over (1976)this month because recently I’ve been listening to their music more purposefully than I ever had in the past. Kiss is my dad’s favorite band and their songs played a prominent role for me as a child. They were the first band I really knew: their music, their costumes and makeup, and their overall energy are all very familiar to me. For most of my life, I took the band’s presence for granted in the sense that what they did on a musical and performative level seemed absolutely normal to me. Kiss is a tremendously important band and I’ve always regarded them as such, but I hadn’t connected with their music on a deeper level until the last couple of years.

I heard “Hard Luck Woman” for the first time a few months ago after not hearing it for several years and it struck a chord with me. The first thing that stood out to me was Peter Criss’s voice and the simplicity of the song itself. It mainly consists of vocals and a slightly bittersweet guitar melody paired with a gentle and steady percussive drumbeat. When I was a kid, Peter Criss was my favorite Kiss member—he was the cat and his persona resonated with me the most. So, it made sense to me that I would respond to “Hard Luck Woman.” I think Criss is an underrated vocalist; his singing style is very humble, basic, and sincere. He’s not over the top; he sings from the heart and it really shines through in this song. Paul Stanley originally wrote the song for Rod Stewart, but decided to keep it for Kiss (which was a good move on his part)—and it’s a wonderful song due to the excellent musicianship that Kiss is known for in terms of guitar rhythm and melody.

Lyrically, the song is quite intense. It’s addressed to a woman named Rags: “a sailor’s only daughter / A child of the water / Too proud to be a queen.” The speaker of the song is leaving her and he’s trying to soften the blow by explaining how much he values her and the time they spent together. The first few lines of the opening verses speak directly to this difficult moment: “If never I met you / I’d never have seen you cry,” “If never I held you / My feelings would never show.” What I love so much about the song is the second pre-chorus which combines the couplet from the first pre-chorus with the last two lines of the chorus:

I keep telling you, hard luck woman
You ain’t a hard luck woman
You’ll be a hard luck woman
Baby ‘til you find your man

This, to me, is the centerpiece of the song because it takes two statements that are seemingly contradictory and puts them together to create a moment of deep complex emotion. Rag is and is not a hard luck woman for the very reason that she still hasn’t found what she truly wants, which is love. The speaker communicates this to her in a way that is incredibly poetic: you’re not struggling because of who you are; you’re struggling because of what you haven’t found yet. The phrase “I keep telling you” also adds a layer of intimacy to the song, suggesting that this is a conversation the speaker has had with Rags more than once.

“Hard Luck Woman” was also written as a follow-up to “Beth” but I think it’s a much better song because it has more depth musically and lyrically. The lyrics address female loneliness from a male perspective in ways that are rare, especially in the seventies. Kiss was very aware of their female audience in ways that other bands during that time weren’t in the sense that they understood why women were listening to their music. They understood the emotional connections between male vocals and melodies and how female listeners responded to those sounds and lyrical concepts. This song is also in conversation with Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” but again, I think it’s a much more profound song precisely because of the way Criss expresses its lyrical message: he’s warm, sympathetic, and affectionate. The listener of the song can come away from it feeling self-empowered and inspired rather than heartbroken—and to me, that’s what makes this song superior to other songs with similar messages written during that time.

I think Boland’s poem and this particular Kiss song are a good pairing for each other. Both don’t try to do too much explaining in the sense that they let the silences speak just as loudly as the words do. I think both create a similar reading/listening experience in the way that certain moments can’t be contained within the poetic/lyrical contexts they were written in. Boland can’t capture the true nature of a storm in a poem; Kiss can’t encapsulate female loneliness in a single song—but both understand that there is an unfolding that happens within these creative mediums that allows the reader/listener to connect with what’s being described through their own emotional experiences of what a storm is, or what loneliness is. To me, that’s what makes Boland a profound poet: her ability to connect with readers on an intimate level. This is also what I have discovered about Kiss’s music: their ability to connect with listeners on a deeper level in ways that are remarkably empowering and enduring.

May 3, 2021