Peter Boyle: Ideas of Travel

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2022, 160pp.

Like his 2019 book, Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, this new work suggests itself as at least a kind of diary by giving the dates “September 2020 – November 2021” at its conclusion. It differs from that earlier book, of course, in that the former was really a grief-diary, marked by responses to loss. Ideas of Travel records poems made during the pandemic but makes no specific reference to those times apart from choosing, as its focus, the idea of travel, one of the great losses of the period. In fact, one might read the title as a humorous take on the cliché that, since “real” travel is denied us, we might profitably choose to focus a little more on “inner” travels: read some books, play board games with the family, etc. The very choice of the word, “travel”, over the more poetically acceptable synonym, “journeying”, in the title leads me to think that Boyle might have had that irritating cliché in mind when he found a name for the collection. Significantly, the word “travel” doesn’t occur in any of the one hundred and forty poems that make up the book.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Boyle’s marvellous poetry that this is a book of a very different sort of journeying to the conventional, touristy kind. We could describe the journeys as voyages into the self but, although all of the poems here are, in a sense, internal voyages, this isn’t really a satisfactory description since they open out into otherworlds that are vast, even infinite, and which the voyager often can only dimly intuit. Of course, to travel one has to have a geography, and one of the pleasures of Boyle’s poems is the way we are lured, as critical readers, into trying to be precise about that geography. The simplest map of the kinds of journeys being undertaken can be found in the book’s very first poem, a prose piece in which the reader is invited to see the “small stone lozenges of a path” which leads over the hills and, literally, far away, since the path will provide a standpoint from which “if your legs can carry you, you can stand on tiptoe and see the infinite”. I am always a little leery when the mathematically problematic matter of “the infinite” is invoked in poems, but this is only a prelude to an immensely complex geography. If the poems of the book were no more than an extension, through various modulations, of the invitation to experience the infinite, this would be an unrewarding book indeed, but there is surprisingly little repetition and a good deal more exploration in Ideas of Travel.

Another early prose piece – No 8 – is a complex extension of the first and, at the same time, the beginnings of an overt geography. It speaks of a series of roads, each deeper than the other, or, at least, each running under the other:

The road went further down under the trees, under fences and slowly decaying houses, below high-voltage barriers and under purple fields of bracken and thistles. Entering the ocean, it continued unperturbed across sunken valleys where cattle once grazed, over the skeletons of abandoned shepherds’ huts, below the stone slabs of the drowned city.
	And, beneath the road of your waking breaths, the road of not-seeing, not-moving, the well-paved royal road of sleep, and under sleep the road of spiralling dreams – and under that, the lone solitary road, a road with no one on it, the road where all the dreams of a lifetime, remembered, not remembered, fuse together, stretched out under the world’s inner sky. The long quiet space of the one flash of light that held you.

Interestingly, the poem doesn’t begin with the road of ordinary, “everyday” life – the one we barely register as we drive to work or to the shops – but with a slightly surreal one, a road travelling through a drowned city. I take the significance of this to be that Boyle resists being fitted into the common scheme whereby poets are seen to remind us that we aren’t really awake to the realities of the world and allow our brains to be fooled by overriding perspectives. In Boyle’s poetry, generally, we take for granted his distinctive view of the world and our perceptions of it: it’s a starting point, not an end product. The next two roads in No 8 are dream roads, a reminder of the importance Boyle’s poetry places on dreams. Dreams, together with conscious “poetic” conceptions, form the major image- and structure-producing elements of this poetry. But I read the final road – “the long quiet space of the one flash of light that held you” – although it might be read as a statement in apposition to the road of totalised dreams – as a separate road, a road which opens the way to many of the poems of this book.

There is a lot of stress here, for example, on childhood especially as a time of flashes of light. In fact Boyle comes close to the conventional notion, here, that childhood is a time in which the perception of the infinite, of magical otherworlds, the true nature of things, and so on, is a natural response which is only ironed out of us by the act of growing up and being properly socialised – what Boyle refers to in one of the poems as a process whereby you “marshall on your carapace / woven over a lifetime”. Sometimes childhood is recalled by an event in the present, as in No 48 where being hospitalised as an adult brings back memories of being hospitalised as a child. Something is happening a second time and “I don’t know if seventy years separate the two events or seven minutes”. Childhood is also a place and state of mind which the adult attempts to revisit. No 66 describes this painful process of climbing a hill towards a childhood home and finding the houses on the way full of “threatening larger-than-life figures all wearing masks and garish summer costumes from the 1960s”. These turn out to be “witches and wizards possessed of an exquisitely refined malevolence” but they form an impassable barrier, “I am only a block now from my childhood home but I know I will never get there. No matter how far I walk, life offers no right of return”. No 134 describes one example of a blessed “flash of light” in which a door to childhood and childhood’s superior perceptions is held open for a moment:

At random, at the wrong hour
for the space of a few heartbeats
memory holds the past open
ready to be touched:

one winter morning in childhood
in the open door
watching my breath
ghost itself in the spiralling air.

And then there are the dead. They play a major role in the poems of this book, perhaps because of Boyle’s recent loss. They live below – as they do in the ancient cultures of Homer and the Hebrew bible – and visitations to them involve the downward movement that is so potent in Boyle’s poetry. (A single poem about a childhood memory, No 24, which looks, on the surface, quite unexceptionable, may be important here. In it the boy climbs upwards towards a cave from the inside of which he feels that he could tunnel to the centre of the earth. It almost seems an image out of Jules Verne’s narrative of journeying to the centre of the earth but it is significant that to go down into essences you have first to go up.) Although the dead are gathered “in small crowds, their hands / lightly joining” in regions below, they are also inside us. One of the poems about his dead mother, No 81, speaks of how the dead live within us:

Now she is dead
I carry my mother inside me.
It is how the earth is made.
In an inner space behind space
out of the everyday, the chaotic,
the greater and lesser disasters,
she fashioned a single thread 
of luminous being.
. . . . . 
Lost, now ash or air,
the dead we love have gone
so impossibly far inside us.
Brushing against the curve of silence
we touch most deeply
only what we can never hold . . .

As another poem (one which, incidentally, deploys the odd, and in this book, repeated, image of shirts on a washing line) says:

. . . . . 
Between the rows of freshly planted shrubs
the dead have given up
on resurrection. From now on
they will speak only from inside us –

whispering scrambled incantations
from their manuals
of grief and love, trying to mend
the broken universal translation machine
that ferries us across time.

The dead lead another life within one of the lower worlds and Boyle’s poetry is especially sensitive to the way in which different worlds impinge on each other. These might almost be thought of as a variety of contact narrative, of the sort that anthropologists are fascinated by: that moment when two cultures with radically different interpretive frameworks meet each other. Poem No 23 imagines an inhabitant of an underworld as moving upside down so that it is “underneath its own shadow, stretching downward into the earth’s remotest layers”, an image which ensures that “our world” is “at once doubled and deprived of foundation”. Not unexpectedly the most moving points of contact are those between the living and the dead, something that recurs constantly at least in Western cultures. An early poem, No 14, imagines meeting with the lost partner, rather like two bubbles touching, and each partner is writing to same work: “And the poem you and I are writing now, / on our separate sides of the void, / glitters as impossibly as silence . . .” A potent image.

Thus far in this review I have been forced to adopt some of the worst practices of critical analysis in attempting to treat the book as a whole, a solid mass of poetry, and then to abstract some of its features. The nature of Boyle’s notions of the geography of his different worlds really forces one to do this but I want to look now at some of the features more specific to the book’s poetry as poetry. The first thing one would observe is that the book is made up of both prose poems and free verse pieces. The conceptual frameworks that underlie Boyle’s work make it immensely suitable to prose poetry: we are going to be fascinated by complex and striking ideas rather than by the skilfully chosen line and stanza breaks. But there is, within the poems, more variety than one might initially see. There are a few poems with what I would call a distinctly hieratic cast. Take poem No 33, for example, made of three stanzas each beginning “Music for the five princesses” and ending with a comment about the realities which these creatures never know: “Grief”, “The bones’ deep pain, the heart’s emptiness” and “Love’s grief”. Each stanza deals with a specific activity or skill of these imaginary princesses and this adds to the sense of patterning in the poem. It’s just possible that it is an allegory prompted by an experience of some contemporary’s luxurious life, or it may even be about how formally constructed poetry – what the princesses do – doesn’t penetrate the human experience very deeply. If the latter is the case then there is a deliberate irony in writing a more formal poem than usual about the blessed but empty life of these privileged princesses whose lives are eminently formal. But whatever the motives generating the poem are, it does represent a momentary change of mode from the contemporary free verse of most of the poems. Poem No 47 is not dissimilar. It describes an accession of desire to which even the elderly are subject even if “it’s the wrong time of life for this / breathless visitation”. But desire is expressed as the arrival of Apsaras – the erotic, dancing demi-goddesses of Indian classical mythology. The humorous disjunction between these creatures and the ordinariness of modern Australia – “The Apsaras have come for tea” – is what drives the poem and, although it isn’t as formal as No 33, it has a quality rather different from most of the other poems. The same could be said of No 127. Here the material is straight, as they say, from the Boyle playbook in that it deals with the difficulties of launching out into life’s journey, but the structure is very formal. The first stanza announces that there are “five layers of leave-taking” and the central stanza devotes two lines to each:

. . . . . 
ragged bush choked with vines and lantana
                  running down to the harbour,
the water’s blue crests flecked with sailboats
                  and passing ferries,
the strip of shoreline opposite with its white cliffs,
                  its miniature houses and cars,
and, beyond, the open sea stretching
                  clear to the horizon,
behind the horizon, across immense oceans,
                  the glittering facades of other worlds . . .

There is something stately and attractive about this sort of construction, especially in contrast to the free-flowing stanzas that make up most of the other poems.
Finally, there are the short lyrics. These might be described as poems which don’t so much explore the complex geography of Boyle’s vision but rely on it when they go on to make a statement or image. They are often very striking as poems and they also have something to say about a certain kind of lyric poem in general. Great poems like Blake’s rose and sunflower are simple statements arising out of a complex view of things. As such they adhere to the requirement of the “purest” lyrics that they be both simple and have a “thrown-off” quality about them: as though a dozen might be written effortlessly in a day. They also have a “throw-away” quality about them: as though they were no more permanent than the situation they catch. And we know that in the cultures of the world millions of such poems are “thrown away” in that they never achieve the status of being copied or, in later technological cultures, of being printed and circulated. (When I think of this I always shudder slightly at the way in which the “lepidum novum libellum” of one of my favourite poets, Catullus, survives in a single flawed manuscript from the middle ages and of the way in which so many Latin poets, some named by Catullus, don’t survive at all. And that in a globally dominating culture with a manuscript-copying industry. The slightness of this kind of lyric means they don’t have the same survival chances as the more solid epics, histories and long, philosophical poems.)

Sometimes, as in the case of No 126, Boyle’s lyrics are striking statements made possible by the view of the geography of the world which the rest of the poems – and Boyle’s earlier work – explore:

Everything that seems infinite
is only once.
A dog barking, a day passing.

But at other times they are allowed to register something of the emotional experience of some part of that complicated world-view. My especial favourite is No 122:

After pitching the heart
to the line of the sky

to descend a little, entering
the humble foreground of being –

upside down, at full speed,
to join nightfall’s raucous procession
of cockatoos cascading through trees.

Geographically, it’s a “going-down” poem, but it’s hard not to respond to that wonderful final image of cascading cockatoos.