Peter Boyle: Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2020, 143pp.

Peter Boyle’s new book should probably be read in conjunction with his previous volume Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness as being profoundly influenced by the death of his partner. These are poems where death, memories, otherworlds and revenants turn up regularly. But it would be wrong to see it as marking any kind or radical change in emphasis in Boyle’s distinctive and impressive poetry. As far as I can see (and critically guess) it’s a matter of an altered emphasis on themes which have been present since his first book, Coming Home from the World.

One of the most important of these themes might be described as the carrying of the weight of the world, a subject reflected in the name of the first of the three sections of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings. I think it has a double meaning. Firstly there is the existential one of the world we carry within us and the way in which that relates to the world outside. This carried world may be made up of personal experiences – especially griefs in recent poems – but it is also our genetic heritage and the way in which we are produced by the external world, an issue that needs confronting despite our cherished subjectivity. Secondly there is the world in its ethical dimension as the home of outrageous wrongs and cruelties. This is an important theme in Boyle’s earlier books and one way of reading them might be as a consistent attempt to get something of the cruelty and the concomitant suffering present in the world into poetry. Rereading some of his earlier poems, I’m not sure that it has ever been satisfactorily managed: poems like “On Sydney’s South-West Line” and “First Shift” from The Blue Cloud of Crying, which try to introduce specificity, don’t seem to play to Boyle’s strengths, no matter how laudable their aims. Something like “Group Portrait, Delft, Late Sixteenth Century” from What the Painter Saw in Our Faces is much more successful – “dealing with” the horrors of the Spanish wars in the Netherlands – because of its more complex frame and the fact that, in introducing the theme of art and its complicity in oppression, it folds the poet into the issues it raises.

At any rate, Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings contains poems where the self, in a state of dis-ease because of the death of the loved one, is particularly sensitive to the weight of the world. “Sorrow” describes that state by personifying it as an everpresent companion not to be traded “for anyone’s else’s product / marked happiness”, but concludes by claiming it to be a proper burden rather than a temporary discomfort:

. . . . .
It insists that you do not look away,
that you walk with it.
Sorrow says, owning me
is owning the due weight of a life.

The closest that these poems get to outright denunciation of politically inspired cruelty is probably to be found in “Post Howard” – a complex allegorical image involving the “inspector of underwater prisons” and whose title is the clearest indicator of its target – and “Crossing Over”, a piece about refuges at borders which has a surreal cast and a way of treating its subject that expands the idea of crossing borders from the experiences of refugees out to the situations of all psychic travellers. In “On a Drawing by Giacometti” and “The Plea” (a description of a Margaret Olley painting) the weight of suffering has to be seen in the subjects of paintings. In the latter case the ultimate plea, recalling Dante’s La Pia, or perhaps Purcell’s Dido, is “remember me” a request the speaking dead make of the living. These dead, including of course the poet’s partner, are visitors and a poem about the Pukumani totemic poles concludes with the dead offering themselves not only with the request to be remembered but with the reminder that the dead have experiences that we can enter:

. . . . . 
marks that say     Walk round me     Walk through me

in all we have     in all that’s missing

that we know nothing
that we are guests here
that we are summoned

so little of what we are stays in the light

Finally “A Time of Endings” seems to expand the dis-ease out into premonitions of apocalypse where “drop by drop / a man knows the earth is changing / and hurries on”.

Perhaps the clearest presentation of the idea of the world being what has produced us, and hence that we carry this weight with us rather than the more predictable weight of our unhappiness with the way the world is, is to be found in “Crowded Out”. It’s a poem that reminds us that our selves are a continuously changing part of a continuum which goes far back before we turned up as individuals:

The world presses in,
a towering river of debris glittering
with specks of one on-going explosion.
All of us are morphing,
our faces layered with many faces, two eyes
gazing upward from the ending of time.
. . . . . 
From somewhere far inside us
a young woman from a millennium ago
rises to the surface, comes close
and we shiver with all her tenderness.
At the place where our breath is suddenly held back
a child is there, watching the trees above him . . .

Counterbalancing this weight – at least to some extent – is a drive towards some kind of transcendence that, in Boyle’s work, often takes the form of imaginative expansion. It’s expressed perfectly at the end of the book’s first poem, a prose piece which begins with personal unease – “Slowly messages come in about the Memorial Service” – moves to observations of fellow citizens and from there to the issue of “urban grit” poems and concludes:

But I don’t want to write Sydney urban grit. I want wide fields opening into the solitude of the universe. I want a ghost to whisper this poem from under the paving stones. Exquisite perfumes stirring from the other world. A small life-buoy where I bob happy in my timelessness. I want to lie naked on the beach and commune with the deity.

Placed first as it is, it’s tempting to read this as a statement of practice or even a manifesto but I think that would distort it somewhat and ignore its slightly self-mocking – at least humorous – tone. What it records might be better described as a tension between the call of the weight of the world and the call of the imaginative infinite. And this view is supported by the book’s second poem which is built around the notion of the tensions between the inner self and its worldly location. At any rate, many of the poems of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings explore the ways in which imaginative expansion and transcendence – communing with the deity – operate. And it’s here that we get a sense of the complexity of Boyle’s poetry because imaginative expansion is never reduced to a simple proposition: instead it’s a doorway to possibilities.

Take, for example, “Stopping by Piles of Waste on Sunny Evenings” whose title alludes to Frost’s poem and may well indicate that we should read its content as being engaged with that poem:

Abandoned planks, an old tyre -
a god of travellers hidden
in a kerbside altar of discards -
I stop to pay homage.

From their side
ghost people – a scrabbled waste -
gaze out at me – 
a woman’s arm
unhinged from her long brown garment
trails useless . . .

We almost seem in Patrick White territory here – though the piles of waste awaiting kerbside collection don’t exactly inhabit the world down at the dump – where the divine is located in the abject. “The Angels Assigned to Me”, while hardly being about waste and decay, does find the angelic in a group of middle-aged ladies in ballet outfits waiting to rehearse who momentarily surround the author “seated alone in meditation”. More conventionally, transcendence can be located in the arts, especially music, so that “Listening to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, April 2020” set in Italy at the horrific early stage of the pandemic in that country, can see the music as a spiritual vaccine, “a tonic against despair”. Something similar happens in another poem in which a condemned emperor plays one of the Mozart piano concertos before his execution – “these groping finger-strikes / against despair, into the pure / futureless air”. A prose poem fittingly called “Music” is probably the place where this issue is explored most thoroughly. It begins with an allusion to The Tempest – “Bright music came to me across the water” – and goes on to explore the effect of hearing a piano being played from a pavilion across a river. The emphasis is on distinguishing this music – played only for the player’s own satisfaction – from the functional music to be expected at events like weddings. The fact that it is cut from a context of usefulness makes it more like real art and more capable of performing the miracle of real art:

. . . . .  What sounded across the river now came to me completely freed of occasion, stripped of whatever might join it to meaning or social purpose. I dwelt within an unpredictable grace where each clear bright note might be the last sound on earth, and yet the notes balanced and sustained each other. . .

Art is one thing, of course, and theology quite another. Boyle gets close to trying to be specific about his sense of the transcendent or the divine in “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob”:

There in the backward ebb of time
we watch you growing as
you grow endlessly beyond our hands,
visible in the purple wonder
of trees in summer, or lying
on a table top as a sleeping fly
sheltering beneath its wings.
You are just as present in the microbe
that enters through a pinprick
in the skin or the vast
turning of a hillside
from gold to brown.
This afternoon of hot wind spiked with rain,
a small dense cloud
you rise towards us from the valley floor,
or, when we are suddenly nowhere, you appear
speaking to us
from inside sleep.

What we have no name for,
enduring when nothing endures.

One gets a mild shock at first to see the transcendence Boyle is obsessed by located in terms of one of the existing theologies. Of course, that particular god is, at the beginning of the poem, divorced from Yahweh – an historical phenomenon whose evolution from tribal god to cosmic overlord is, surely, a result of Jewish religious writers responding to historical imperatives rather than a response to a process whereby the imaginative infinite expands its divine figures. At any rate, this god is soon identified as something dimensionless who communicates in a number of ways, rather as the dead do. But it’s a poem which sets one thinking about transcendence, about our “endless efforts at expansion” and where this comes from. Is it an internal, psychological (or chemical) drive, is it culturally created (it’s certainly culturally mediated) and what sort of variations does it play? I’m not sure that these questions are central to Boyle’s poetry but someone in the future will read his work carefully enough to perhaps detect a pattern of hints as to what his assumptions about such questions are. At any rate, Boyle’s is really a humanist poetry in that the divine is subordinated to the human rather than vice versa. A poem appearing not long after “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob” in the book, “Figure in a Small Icon”, investigates the subject of a religious painting in just the same way that “The Plea” does, by focussing on what is present in the face:

. . . . .
If the earth explodes this night
and I am all that is left of humanity
any future sentient being
will judge us to have been creatures
given no other means of defence
than the nakedness of their gaze.
They will see only the godhead buried
at every moment within us – 
not the deceit, the violence, the greed
that ruled our days.

The last section of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings gives its title to the book as a whole and thus establishes its importance. Most of the poems recount dreams and have that slightly eerie narrative style which we associate with accounts of dreams – “I am standing in the front garden of my cousin’s house in Mosman”, “I am at a poetry festival in South America”. Dreams and poetry are, of course, close kin – texts full of meaning but resisting absolutely confident single interpretations – so there is something doubly complex when they are folded inside each other. Presumably, as it is a “dreambook”, we must read this as a kind of diary of thirty-six numbered dreams during the period following his partner’s death, and the dreams will contain keys to the healing process the mind undergoes. But not all of the poems are recorded dreams – some (12, 31 and 34) are “conventional” Boyle poems and might well have appeared in the earlier two sections of the book.

As dreams, their “content” is marked by an obsession with visualising the afterlife in different ways. There is a lot of movement both upwards and downwards, and the “otherworld” can be a religious college (4), a shopping mall (9), “an immense city famous for its concerts, its theatre . . .” (5), “an island in the wide fork of a river” (28) or a village on the Russian steppes (6). And the tone contains a lot of anxiety which, for a specialist sufferer of anxiety dreams such as myself, rings very true indeed. The first poem of the sequence is full of anxiety though it is, rather surprisingly, an anxiety about the poet’s work and its value rather than the partner’s fate. Perhaps, whatever a poet’s situation, concern about the vocation is paramount. The seventeenth poem is a brilliant dream in which the beloved partner slips away and is pursued through kafkaesque urban landscapes by an increasingly desperate poet. It concludes:

That we should have found each other once among life’s million roads of chance. To feel your hand now slip out of mine, to lose you on the countless intertwining paths of the dead. A circle closes. I am alone. A small child once more, stranded in the immense maze of the world, suddenly nowhere.

These aren’t the final words of the book but they make an appropriate, and slightly ambiguous ending (“nowhere” is, after all, described in “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob” as a receptive state in which we can hear the god speak) for a magnificent collection. Peter Boyle’s poetic career is quite unlike that of any other Australian poet and Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings is probably the most accomplished (a word critics should avoid) of his books and certainly the best introduction to his way of looking at the world and exploring its imperatives.