Peter Boyle: Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions

Np: Vagabond Press, 2024, 128pp.

Peter Boyle now has such an established place in contemporary Australian poetry that it isn’t really necessary, once again, to go over the features of his distinctive poetic sensibility and the kinds of poems it produces, beyond repeating that his approach to poetry has its roots not in English language poetry but in the poetry of the Romance languages two of which, French and Spanish, he speaks fluently. He is also a translator and the task of translating brings a poet into a greater intimacy with the work of another poet than simply reading does: in a sense it requires a very special kind of reading. Unlike the comparatively unified earlier books Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness and Ideas of Travel, Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions is something of a compendium. It is made up of five sections, each with varying degrees of coherence, usually distinguished from the others thematically.

It begins with a section which, as its title, “Companions”, suggests is about what accompanies us in life. But there is another feature of Boyle’s method on display here: the tendency to interpret single issues in an often surprising way. This is an example, perhaps, at the conceptual, level of resisting any kind of reduction, even in the meaning of a word. Ideas of Travel, his previous book, interpreted the notion of travel in such a broad way that one was tempted to think of it as deliberately anatomising all the possibilities of a topic. Boyle’s poetry isn’t really of the anatomising sort – it prefers to follow imaginative threads – but readers can often be surprised at what gets included under a single rubric. “Companions” begins with a five part poem that encapsulates this. The first is a little poem welcoming a small spider, “intent on exploring the world”, and, fitting for something acknowledged to be a companion, it is granted room since “the first day of summer / is carving a space large enough / for both of us”. But the other four companions – raindrops, ice, light and dreams – are surprising enough to show readers that Boyle’s view of the world is very distinctive.

Of course, a major companion is Boyle’s deceased partner and a number of poems, not only some in this section, are haunted by that loss and by attempts to communicate. “The Sadness of the King”, for example, is about how meaningless the precisely observed accompaniments to a privileged life are in the face of the loss of the beloved queen. Dead parents appear in “The End of Childhood” and in “In a Waiting Room” and “Farewell”. The former of these is a prose poem – usually a clue that it is dream-based. In it the poet dreams of accompanying his late father on a walk through the ocean:

. . . . . In the wider scheme of things a short walk through the ocean while conversing with my father is no great matter. Even though it has lasted more than fifty years now, even though the sea and my father will continue well beyond my lifetime.

The other two poems relate to his mother who suffered dementia (brilliantly described as a “sensation of being always on a plane / circling the earth, incapable of landing”) and who, before death, had travelled in a dream to visit the poet, stuck in a hospital in Berlin.

But most of the companions of this section are not absent ones. Sometimes they are those elements which enable us to contact a wider world. They can be the blue horses of Marc’s “The Dream” which bring this wider world to someone with glazed eyes, “swallowed by elsewheres”. And this is also the subject of a fine, rather Rilkean poem, “For a Young Poet”:

Magical things are close at hand -
the icon shimmers in the wall niche
at the bending of the house’s
twin corridors, a bearded archangel nestles
quietly in the alcove where the washing is drying,
two tablets of the law are concealed in the rafters.

If you come from the land of the sleepless
or have ventured here
from the wide plains of disquiet
you will find water in the fridge
harvested from juniper leaves . . .

This is the water which, as the poem says at its end, will enable you, “in the long dreams that follow” to slowly make yourself into yourself. And “At the River” might well describe the same process from a different angle. Standing waist deep in the bend of a river, a boy has a Rilkean pre-poetic sensation:

. . . . . 
as if one Sunday morning, aged seven,
you’d gone fishing
only to haul in the world
which you couldn’t know or see
but somehow sensed echoing back . . .

Though light may well be the companion here, as well, perhaps, as water, the focus is on the self expanding into the possibilities of receiving a greater world.

There are two poems, “A Stone Turns Over a Stone” and “Under the Trees of a Suburban Side Street” which also stretch the notion of companionship very wide. The second is a picture of a girl riding on her father’s back. From this safe perspective it seems to her that she is the centre of the universe and that “all the earth’s roads” stretch out beneath her. One could read it as a portrait of a cosy, soon to be displaced, sense of solipsism, made possible by the companion – her father – as well as her own innocence. But that is hardly in keeping with Boyle’s view of things and so we probably have to read the poem as describing a sense of the world which is present in childhood, lost in adolescence, and which needs to be recaptured if you are to have a fuller life – as the “young poet”, for example, must. The same issue of an implied solipsism is present in “A Stone Turns Over a Stone”. In the first stanza there is a manifest disapproval of the stone’s contempt for the life it finds beneath it, “the disfigurement / it sees all around” but by the end of the poem there seems to be at least a tacit approval of the stone’s sense of itself as being, like the girl on her father’s shoulders, “at the centre of the cosmos”. It’s possible that these two poems are enacting a kind of contraction/expansion scenario (a little like Wonderland’s Alice) where you grow small and inward-turned in order to pass through the portal that enables you to expand into a fuller world.

The final section of Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions usees its key word “inscriptions” with the same freedom that the first section had treated “Companions”. We may initially think of words engraved on tombstones – and there are poems of loss in this section – but another meaning seems to be of a short meditation about the poet’s current state, an “inscription” in the sense that it is capturing, formalising and getting into words. This is certainly true of the suite of twelve numbered poems called “Inscriptions” which are spread through this final section. They are all short and relate to immediate sensations. They share a similar topography: an interior leading to an outside world of an avenue of trees and the sound of birds. The overall impression is of a visitation from a wider world and an often frustrated desire to join that wider world, perhaps because it will facilitate communication with the lost ones. As the third poem in the sequence, looking at a noisy miner in “a green corridor of air,” says, “we are the grounded ones: / our speech, our self / never programmed // to go that far”. Among the poems of the section which are not part of the “Inscription” sequence is the very anthologisable “October Morning”. It shares the topography of the sequence and is, among other things, a lament for the individual’s inability to be part of the larger world outside:

. . . . .
Today, this morning
everything impregnated with messages
          I can’t read
. . . . . 
sounds dwindling into silence
like the long arches of colonnades
condemned always to head off
for the horizon

               as the racket of rain
folds everything into the background
of time passing again.

This last line is a sign that time (or Time) is a major theme in this book and that the most difficult section, the third, is called “Time’s Errata”. This is a single, twenty-four part sequence (possibly reflecting the number of hours in a day) called “Ode to Time and Time’s Errata”. It begins by establishing that Time is different for us and for mountains and rivers, each in their “no-time now-time”. But the dead are also included in this category and it is tempting for a reader, struggling with the sequence, to see it as being essentially about Time as it relates to lost loved ones. The survivors live in a world in which time progresses slowly and conventionally but it is a compromised time because, devoid of the loved-one, it is hardly real. They also have within themselves memories fixed in time which are part of their ongoing experience. Attempting to form some sort of communication with the dead, “each in our own / void” means imagining time passing for the dead. It’s a complex metaphysics involving Time, self and death. At the end of the sequence though, it reverts to the issue of “October Morning”: the outside world resists understanding though one might, momentarily, come close to understanding things like the water in an upland lake, “their consciousness / of themselves, of the games they play / out of loneliness, desire or boredom // with whatever they touch . . .”

“The Dark Hours”, the fourth section of the book, is based in a way on the double meaning of that title. These are often poems about bad times but there is also a high proportion of prose poems, signifying their origins in dreams, dreams which are products of the dark hours of sleep. And it is true that most of the dreams recall scenarios of frustration: a card invites the dreamer to a piano recital in a meadow but the piano and pianist don’t appear; an attempted rendezvous with a lover involves a bewilderingly complex route to her apartment; an attempt to enter a piano competition involves not only a complicated set of forms but the realisation that the dreamer can’t even read music; a school excursion involves losing his students – and so on. But the poems aren’t simple anxiety dreams and have positive elements. The first one in my list, the poem about the invitation to attend a recital, doesn’t end in simple frustration. As the dreamer waits in the field for the piano and pianist which are never going to appear, something of the positive value of the dark hours emerges:

. . . . . It is dark now – the stars are out. I am still waiting patiently. And slowly a great peace has settled over me, steadily shaping a curve to the silence, almost a melody. Did I truly need another’s fingers to interpret this?
          And meanwhile, across the keyboard of darkness, a river was flowing by with my life on it.

This positivity is at the heart of the title poem of the sequence which is worth quoting from at length because it seems something of a manifesto poem:

. . . . . 
Day creatures will write their own books
of fixed streets, of reliable births
and well-nourished alliances, firm in their
surety of measured distances. For such
life starts at dawn forever fine-tuning
the network linking human to human.

The crowded web of actions is soaked in the sun’s
feverish energy. In the dark
day creatures huddle close beside fires
or tiny flickering lights, uneasy
before the ghost of emptiness.

Those who navigate with no need for sight
feel the air expand around them, safe
in the corridors of inner space, flying
from abundance to abundance.

And so to “Ancestors”, the second section of the book. We are in a quite different mode here, one which recalls Boyle’s forays into more expansive narrative structures, such as are found in Apocrypha and Ghostspeaking. Here the imagined background, the land of the ancestors, is a territory that floats like Swift’s Laputa just above the actual world. Thirty-five prose pieces of various length record aspects of the history of the land and the poet’s experiences and meetings on the land. These meetings are with ancestors but not in the conventional sense. Like “companion” and “inscription”, “ancestor” is interpreted broadly and imaginatively. I’m not at all confident in my reading of the section but my default allegorisation is that the ancestors are different parts of the self, different versions of one’s past self which one carries with one. The small poem introducing the sequence is both helpful and paradoxical:

Between the moon’s ghost sister and the vanished sun
          the land of the landless floats in mid-air.
          Here a lifetime’s follies and mistakes 
          transform to patches of light and colour splashed
          against a barren sky. Sometimes
          a lifetime of mistakes is needed
          to gain a glimpse of this land.

. . . . . You can recognise the Athenabashi from a distance by the peculiarly rigid black and white clothes they wear, their habit of flying kites woven from exquisite silk even on windless days and a tendency of sunlight to follow them around. . .
Here we seem to be in the world of Apocrypha where a tendency in human nature is plotted out as the behaviour of a whole country. The name of the group suggests something geometrical and they have a self-confident reductiveness about them which is so unlike the experiences of the ancestors that it supports the idea that the latter represent not versions of the self but inherited wisdom.

Much of the intriguing difficulty of the sequence lies in the fact that it is not conceived in an “anatomising” way. The prose pieces are disconnected descriptions of places, rituals, meetings etc, approaching the nature of the ancestors and their land in fragmentary and oblique ways. It adds to the disorientation of the reader but prevents it from being a species of science-fiction.

I described Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions as something of a compendium book implying a degree of separation between the five sections and their distinctive themes. Of course the same poetic sensibility underlies all of them and “Ancestors” has a particularly interesting cross-reference. One of the sections – the only poem in the whole sequence – throws a lot of light on the idea of “inscriptions”, the core of the final section:

                    (What gets inscribed)
The man who came to measure the inside wall
                          above the chimney
and the woman who boiled and wrung the clothes
                         in the backyard copper,
they will continue, their hands still working away,
                         frozen in their duties,
visible on certain days in a certain play of light,

as if what gets inscribed
is the dailiness of our being
and the heavy scuffing of the floor
bears the imprint of our feet
making their hobbled way into eternity.

Apart from the fact that these images of dailiness occur only on certain days in certain plays of light, there isn’t really much to connect this with the “Ancestors” version in which it is lodges. But it does help define the idea of “inscription” and thus prepares us for the book’s final section.