Peter Boyle: Apocrypha: Texts Collected and Translated by William O’Shaunessy

Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2009, 292pp.

This – by Australian standards, fabulously ambitious – new book by Peter Boyle imagines a collection of hitherto lost documents dating from, roughly, the eighth century BC – the age of Homer – to the end of the first millennium of the common era. These documents include delicious possibilities such as lost books of Herodotus, Xenophon, lost dialogues of Plato, fragments of lost Greek plays, a lost text by Pausanias, notebooks of Lucretius, Catullus and so on. There is a framework which has them being found in the papers of a William O’Shaunessy a kind of Classicist equivalent of Ern Malley. The texts, in keeping with our interest in the suppressed texts of the early Christians, are designed to show an element of human history which has been edited out – but more of that later. Importantly the world of the period that these texts cover is rather different to the known world as well. There is, for example, the kingdom of Ebtesum, imagined to be in the Sahara and a sister city of Kitezh which has the power to disappear and reappear in a different place (outside Kiev) two thousand years later – the latter city is presumably derived from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera. There is also a nearby Essene community! Atlantis is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa. And just as the geography is surreal, so are the cultures and the events within those cultures: we meet on one of the Atlantean islands, to take an example at random, people who have perfected an operation to cure others of the sense that all is not well; and later we meet the sages of Ecbatan who write their sacred works in sand.

One of the powers on the Atlantean islands is Eusebius. Here we have a clear allegory in that the Eusebiolans represent the modern United States. A lot of the material about their cruelty and the lunacy of their culture (based on the teachings of a “Nicanorean” church) is grimly funny. The initial description, masquerading as a brief summary of the culture such as one finds in the first book of Herodotus, describes how:

Not content with owning houses, lands, islands, factories and latifundiae of all kinds, metals and fruits named and unnamed, they began the practice of claiming everything from magic spells to words and phrases. A small group of the Eusebioli, forming themselves into a corporation for the purpose, asserted their right to the invention of the words “yesterday”, “today” and “tomorrow”. A rival consortium took out ownership of the present tense. So fierce was the vindictiveness of the Eusebian courts, whose jurisdiction extended beyond earth to galaxies visible and invisible, so absolute the force of their arms, that for decades no one could speak any more in the present without suffering confiscation of all their goods and the enslavement of their children for several generations. Likewise when a spell was developed to enable the sun to rise in the morning, it became the property of a corporation threatening the earth with darkness if they did not part with a third of their wealth . . .

Two-dimensional and psychotic as the culture of Eusebius is, it makes a good point of introduction to the alternate worlds, cultures and histories of Boyle’s book. Although the Eusebiolan modus operandi is based on an out-of-control rapacity and lack of respect for all humans, at a deeper, generative level, it is a culture of reduction. A much later passage – imagined to be a Brief History of Eusebius by one Macronius of Illyrium – describes the culture’s especial hatred of “paradox makers”, those who use language in a way that suggests an infinity of possibilities between two positions:

In Eusebius children spend from five to seven years learning off by rote long lists of the visible . . . . . For those who grow up in Eusebius the heady combination of superiority and humiliation throughout childhood ensures a timid anxiety. Whilst the maximization of inequality is the political goal of the Nicanorean ethics, its devotional emphasis is well captured by the chant uttered in ancient Vedic ‘Make me narrow, narrow, narrow.’

It is this constant plea for a widening of human creative, intellectual and emotional possibility which makes Apocrypha very much one with Boyle’s other work and very far from being a kind of sterile postmodern game. The title poem of Boyle’s previous book, The Museum of Space, was a complex prose poem much of whose exact significance has always escaped me. But there is no doubt about the significance of the final lines:

In the museum of space no art work is ever completed. Sand and water filter in equal measure from the ceiling to the basement. Constructed on the ancient alignment of heaven and hell, the museum opens onto the silent inexhaustible corridors of the brain.

“The silent inexhaustible corridors of the brain” is a fine phrase but a very precise one. Within the mind, all things are possible and thus this poetry makes one of the many pleas for a kind of surrealism so that the universe may never become the lifeless, mapped, reduced version of it that most official culture propagates. Of course we have heard this before, in Blake’s “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear, as it is – infinite” for example, but most of Boyle’s references are likely to come from the poetries of the Romance languages, whose surrealism has a distinctive cast – humane rather than metaphysical. In the wider scheme of things – before I leave this issue – it is possible to carp, partly because the plea for the “inexhaustible corridors of the brain” reminds me of Spengler’s famous distinction between the Greek view of things which began with no concept of space, only of related objects and tentatively moved out from there. This was contrasted with the Indian “mind” which evoked the concept of infinity immediately and then proceeded to project into this infinity its own visions. Infinity is a fine, undelimited and not very private place, but the culturally Greek in me wants to ask, what is to stop it being filled with, say, the psychotic, nightmare visions that make up the Jain cosmology?

At any rate, carpings aside, Apocrypha, would be a magnificent achievement if it were no more than a series of imaginary texts whose underlying appeal was for a wider recognition of human creativity and a greater sensitivity to human suffering, often caused exactly by the cultures of measurement and reduction. But the heart of its achievement, I think, lies in its portraits. There are a number of memorable people, most but not all, poets, who circulate through the text. When they are poets, we are left with a small anthology – a dozen pages or so – of their poems. Some of these are as good as anything Boyle has written. Take, for example, Irene Philologos. Exiled with her husband from the Byzantine court (probably at the turn of the fifth century, AD) to a small village where she can be quietly left to die, she is sustained, so a brief biography tells us, by her poetry, preserved as A Poetic Journal of Ten Years in Boeotia. Irene is, like so many of the creative figures in this book, an exile: someone whose outer resources are very small but whose inner resources are rich and sustaining. She provides one of the two epigraphs for the whole of Apocrypha: “To one who is wise the tiny and the immense equally bring fear and blessings” – the insight of the exile. Her poetry is very much about the thisness of the ordinary and, of course, her sense that it is either permeated with the infinite or a gateway to that infinite:

Gold has its distinct flavour -
gold pulp of the opened gourd, golden rice,
the gold skin of a fish
frying in cold air as sunset widens:

as a girl I thought I knew you,
thin paint on high domed walls,
the artisan’s fresco-work, what alone could hush
the wild eyes of Authority.

Here as my life folds over
you enter me -
humble substance of the everyday.

If Irene recalls a latter-day Ovid, stuck at the mouth of the Danube, another poet, Erychthemios, self-exiles himself to Alexandria where, so his biography tells us, he settled down “to live in the simplest manner possible”. He did this because of the intuition that “the smallest possible poem may capture the sky”. And the first of his poems collected is about basic entities: “just this hand / just this street / just this river / just this stone”. For all that Erychthemios shares Irene’s situation (voluntarily in his case) he is a rather different poet. Take this fine poem about one of life’s miniatures – the mosquito:

Half an arm’s length above me
mosquitoes tracing a zigzag pattern,
unpredictable, elaborate,
more beautiful than stars.

Completely still
I watch the grey swarm’s
inexplicable drawing -
tiny masters of life and death,
greetings!

The difference here is cultural (Irene sees the divine as gold, Erychthemios is sensitive to the infinite possibilities of appearances for the gods) but it is also poetic. It is hard to be precise about this but Erychthemios seems a classical lyric poet with a social outlook and the need to project his poetry into an audience. Somehow he seems deeply Western (the minimalism feeds into a dramatic, suffering stance) while Irene might finish up Japanese. The difference – though I’ve not described it adequately – is important because it reminds us of the extent of the dramatic in this book. Boyle’s previous poetry often has had consistent themes but very varied incarnations. Here the dramatic requirement has ensured variety and consistency. It’s tempting (so good are the individual anthologies) to think in terms of Pessoa and his freak creation of different voices. But I don’t think that is happening here. If Apocrypha had been done in the spirit of Pessoa, there would be far less overall consistency underlying the different speakers. Pessoa would have invented at least one poet whose poetry and attitude to poetry would have been entirely at odds with the overall tone of the book and its themes of celebrating the infinite, understanding the relationship of large and great (outer and inner, above and below, and so on): I can imagine the first line of such a poet: “These fools who speak of the infinite . . .”!

This leads me to a reservation. Generally the voices of known writers (Herodotus, Plato, and so on) are imitated very accurately. But buried within Apocrypha are a number of poems by Catullus, imagined to be from an early notebook. Boyle protects himself here by making the poems unfinished and early but they just don’t sound like Catullus:

If you seek Catullus,
look for him far away
in the coiled smoke rising
from a pyre by the Ganges

or right beside you
in that garrulous wounded bird
who’s forgotten all those days
when the birds passed freely between us.

                              ~o~

This black doesn’t suit you, Catullus.
Put some bright red,
some glittering brocade
on your shoulder ”“

the divine is in everything.

Catullus is a hard poet to categorise. He certainly is amenable to the spirit of Apocrypha in that he can show a dazzling grasp of the significance of dimensions (the Imperial and the homely domestic perspective of love and life) and, above all, a way in which this shift in dimension can be the energising structure of a lyric poem. In Catullus XI, especially, the poem moves from a grand tour of the edges of empire to a flower cut by a ploughshare at the edge of a meadow. The introduction of the poem is enormous and hysterical and its “matter” is reduced to two words, “vivat valeatque” – may you live and prosper – before the humble but electric conclusion. I pick on this poem to argue that Catullus doesn’t write lines like “the divine is in everything”, which – true as they may be – rather lie there and look at you. He is a dramatic, formal poet always looking for dynamic and dramatic structures (and is a master of such structures).

A final figure to look at might be “Leonidas the self-exiled” – not a poet but a fairly copious philosopher who asks the question, “What is it that is worth saying?”. Leonidas lives his life on the island of Phokaia in the Southern Indian ocean amongst a race of people who are described in some detail. They are migrants from Australia, colonising the island from boats in a kind of reverse of the colonising of the Pacific by the Polynesians. All their boating skills are immediately lost – or sacrificed – but they develop a language of extraordinary complexity, a language that is

a kind of parallel universe, which flows alongside other activities, a music, a tapestry, a mirror that all attend to while going about other unconnected tasks. Their island is small – two days walk suffices to trace its perimeter. Their language brings the universe into their presence: from stars to sea monsters, from the delicate quivering of fish to the listless ripple of a desert wind. Humour and grief flash in jagged splices across their language. They have lost everything and gained everything . . .

This is one of the book’s best statements of its great theme of expressiveness and it is hard not to think of Phokaia as representing the best of Australia (which is not mentioned in any of the early documents of the book), perhaps the best of Australian poetry. Whatever the case it argues for a minimalism that holds the infinite within a small space.

It’s hard to think of a more ambitious book of poetry in this country, at least recently. I think it is Boyle’s best book, by some distance, because it solves so brilliantly the issue of finding varied forms in which to say something that is, essentially, consistent. It might be worth pointing out that the very first poem of Boyle’s first book (“From Instructions Given to the Royal Examiners in the State of Chi” from Coming Home from the World) is in exactly the kind of mode of the poems and prose extracts of Apocrypha. The examiners of the candidates for entry into the Chinese civil service are encouraged to look anywhere but at the actual mechanical answers to the mechanical questions:

Examine the candidate’s state of mind
as he inscribed the answers to all of the above
and estimate the temperature of his brain cells
as he lay awake in the cubicle at night
longing for raw oysters with calamansi juice home.
. . . . .
Identify the direction of the wind
as it hurries the leaves of all the provinces
away from everything known,
brushing them with a fragrance
of unnamed creatures waiting to be born.
Remember for what purpose
you are setting down these dreams
under such limited starlight.
Remember the waves which are forcing you
further and further off all courses into the terrible wilderness of death.
Then forget all of yourself and all your hopes
and write your mark and comments in the correct space
for the perusal of a higher order.

It’s hard not to hear the accents of Phokaia in the advising voice here, and the character of the Eusebiolans in the portrait of the examiners, people who tend to miss the point.