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.

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.

Peter Boyle: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2019, 80pp.

This remarkable book is a kind of livre composé covering the twenty months which begin with the author’s discovery that his partner is suffering from an incurable disease. One’s initial response is that this will provide a difficult test not only for the author himself, but also for the Romance-influenced, surreal (to use a loose term loosely) poetic mode that Peter Boyle has pioneered throughout his career and which I have written about at some length on this site in reviews of his other work. Sometimes the background landscapes of his poems, though fictional, anchor them in at least the illusion of a solid reality: Apocrypha was, for example, an anthology of different kinds of poetry produced by different cultures in an imagined alternative world; Ghostpeaking was an anthology of poems produced by imaginary Romance language speakers whose biographies were provided – also anchoring the poems in some way. Here, the pain that anchors the poems is oppressively realistic and one feels, initially, that it might be difficult for readers to respond to conceptually elegant poems of dreams and dream images which are tied to a painful experience which they have either experienced themselves or can relate empathically to.

Actually, an alternative way of framing this question might be to point out that the most conventional, personal-documentary poetry, far from being at home in the middle of personal trauma, is actually rather challenged by it. It occurs most recently in David McCooey’s heart attack poems where such an immense disruption to a poet’s life at all levels demands to be “dealt with” in some way since it would be a deliberate lie to omit it and while the truest poetry may be the most feigning it can hardly be the most deliberately suppressing. In that case, as in others, various techniques can be deployed to prevent the poems being a mere hospital diary: a set of oblique lyrics, for example, or a single “confessional” piece that gets the issue out of the way. My point is that an extreme personal experience poses problems no matter what the poetic theory, methods and beliefs of the poet may be.

Only one of the poems in this book approaches the documentary:

we are people gathering in waiting rooms
our gentle patter
                                     builds a smooth
human feel to mortality
through words
                                     our joined breaths
renew their task:
to push helplessness a little further
off our shoulders

There are a couple of other poems – “And me, if I’m your keeper, / in this strange zoo” and “suddenly / it comes to us” – which also deal with the everyday realities of hospital visits though in a fairly oblique way. The latter, for example, speaks of a mysterious text from “the last emperor” – either Chinese or Roman – in which “death’s slowly / at first imperceptibly / widening thumbprint” is delivered in a kind of code. One could imagine an entire book constructed like this with a suitably sophisticated, European-surreal cast which would obviate any tendency towards simple confessionalism. But what Boyle has chosen to do (at least as far as I can intuit it) is to measure the alterations to his psychic state by observing changes in the messages that are sent to him as though the poems were made up of the traces we see on the monitors in an intensive care unit. This is a technique that involves being receptive and looking carefully at what comes in. And what comes in comes in from a variety of sources. Dreams, hypnagogic daydreams and fantasies are obvious ways in which the stressed body and mind sends messages but in Boyle’s distinctive creative set up, poetry itself sends messages when some words suggest themselves as the correct way to proceed with a piece of writing which has already been begun. And language – which Boyle, as a professional translator, has a particularly intimate relationship with – can also send its messages: there are some poems in Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness which are founded on bilingual puns and homonyms, so that, for example, the fact that in some Romance languages the word for “conscience” and “consciousness” are the same seems to suggest a message from the depths of linguistic reality that needs exploring.

It is not to be expected, of course, that these messages should be couched in simple, interpretable language though there are occasions when they are. One such is the “Revelation on the forest path” an extended piece whose style seems to invoke Eliot’s confrontation with the familiar compound ghost in “Little Gidding”. Here the ghost is female – “like one returned from great distances / speaking” – and she has a lot of fairly straightforward advice that doesn’t require interpretation. And a lot of this advice seems to be about the function of poetry in contexts of crisis:

“All the truly matters is not there
or so so little
All the gestures and curling twists,
the filigree around the borders of lines,
bleach out
You build elaborate porticoes where no one will enter,
where nothing has entered”
. . . . . 
“It is not safe now
We do not live where you thought we lived
And perhaps there is no time now for
the building of monuments, even monuments of words
Too late now for those speakers of the lines
only you could invent
Just because you have breathed many mornings
does not mean you will always breathe
Just because the sun has risen over and over
many days in your life
does not mean it will always rise” . . .

But usually these messages have to be read carefully since their significance is not always immediately apparent. As one of the poems says:

As I unfold
the pages of
the dreambook
more and more
diagrams open out.

What was I assembling? . . .

Before going on to look at the possibilities:

Is it 
the elaboration

of a space 
soon to be evolved
for whatever remains
after us
. . . . . 
or perhaps these
chaotic diagrams are
the history of the abandoned . . .

In other words – or at least as I read it – messages from the world of dreams are not necessarily limited to the concerns of the individual dreamer. They have a component in which they are the dreams of much larger contexts that the individual partakes in. But despite this caveat, I think the idea of someone’s looking at hospital monitors without any other means of direct contact with the patient and deriving from that some kind of image of the sufferer’s altered state, to see the various messages from the differing sources as riddles “whose answer is yourself”, is a viable one. Or to use another image, “wading through / the fine-grained silt / that was the world”, the interpreter can make some sense of the river-of-life’s “moment-by-moment turbulence”.

What kind of observations is a reader to make? It isn’t the sort of book that one dips into; one needs to read it whole several times in order to find the motifs and repeated images. One of the most obvious is the idea of being dragged remorselessly into nothingness. In a sense the first three of the one hundred and fourteen poems play variations on this. The first interprets what may well be a simple observable image of the author’s surrounding suburbia as an example of how they all (in Eliot’s words again) go into the dark:

. . . . .
Beyond is the steady tug
of a long line of houses, of houses
crammed with people
going under

The words “tug” and “long line” ensure that we are predisposed to the image of a sinking ship here before the words “going under” appear but the second poem repeats the downward movement as a result of desk-bound weariness – “When your eyes are so heavy / you fall into space” – and the third introduces the repeated image of the self, rather like a meteor, undergoing a momentary illumination as it disappears:

so far a thing
he goes
into the zero


These poems set up a recurring pattern of movement, often a fall, into complex corridors and tunnels. Sometimes the image is not of a fall but of a voyage (in a boat or spaceship) through a surreal landscape often, again, of corridors. Repeated images are, of course, part of the apparatus which unifies what really are fragmented poems coming from different aspects of the psyche. There are, in fact, many continuities in this book. An author’s note tells us that the series was written between January, 2017 and September, 2018 and we are often reminded of the season as the poems progress. There is also a regularly recurring description of the setting of a desk at night with a world outside. I have quoted the second part of the opening poem but the first lines describe how words pile up “on one side of the desk”. It’s quite refreshing to be reminded that poems are written not on the site of the experience which is being explored, but on a desk in front of a blank page or a computer screen. Oddly these references might be said to make these poems, despite their interest in dreams, metaphysical paradoxes and language, rather more solidly realistic than most.

I won’t go on describing the repeated images; they form the fabric of the entire book and tend to be spaced so that the book rarely seems to be tied down to exploring one particular approach. But, standing back a little, it’s hard not to get the idea that traumatic experience has sharpened the sense of dichotomy that runs through the poems. There is, spatially, the “here” as opposed to the “there”, the homely desk as opposed to the fall into nothingness, the forest as opposed to the burnt out landscape. But the fundamental dichotomy is that of light and dark. Presumably this has its origins in night-time composition (night being the best time to hear the messages of the dream-world) set against an experience of the dawn. A poem called “Stepping from a dark bedroom onto the wide verandah, daybreak” is entirely built on this dichotomy:

all the light of the trees
speaks for me
this presence

that makes the leaves 
more than leaves
.  . . . .
if you can feel beyond
these dark markings, blue
scratches where

the death lord has held me

within us
as far over us

this light returns

Light and dark are so dominant that one begins to think of gnostic presuppositions possibly underlying the work. And a slightly Jewish cast to some of the later poems – one is described by the author as being based on a poem from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse – supports this to the extent that early common-era Judaism, like early Christianity, was very hospitable to the influences of gnosticism (and other beliefs coloured by Neo-Platonism). It’s also a reminder that the figure of Jabes – an Egyptian Jew writing in Paris and a master of paradox – has appeared before in Boyle’s poetry. I have always been puzzled by apparently ineradicable assumptions such as that light is good and darkness is bad (one could include the strange geometry whereby depth is good – profound – and surfaces are trivial – superficial) and I’m attracted by works which invert this. In Tristan and Isolde, light is bad (der öde Tag) and dark good; in Antony and Cleopatra the Egyptians are people of the night and the decidedly unpleasant Romans are people of the day. What prevents it being a cliché in Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness are a number of paradoxes whereby the dichotomy generates its own undoing. We have met a brief version of this in the third poem where the self as it plunges to extinction gives off light – a phenomenon which is an example of the wider paradox whereby words and poetry emerge from silence.

One of the poems which engages with this begins as a celebration of light – “its bright dependable / presence among us / moving into our rooms / brushing our bodies as we wake” – but then goes on to see light as being

   the closest 
we will ever have
to a metaphor
for being dead

from so far off
we will glow

among our objects
and our traces

unspoken irreplaceable

the underworld’s
almost indetectable

Admittedly this is not about light in the abstract so much as about the effects of light on human beings but it does complicate the presentation of light in the book. An earlier poem begins by speaking of the “end of the twisted valley” and our expectations, based on the general images the book supplies, is that some sort of descent into darkness will wait at the end of this painful experience. But, to our (or, at least, my) surprise, it is light that is waiting:

at the end of the twisted valley
in all the battering winds

at the foot of the door
a light

and the small step before the light
sheer     beckoning     bridgeless

In other words, in popular culture terms we are in the universe of Close Encounters of the Third Kind rather than of Pitch Black. What is a reader to make of the light/darkness dichotomy as it is revealed in this book? Perhaps the opposition holds and these counter-examples are no more than the psychic world providing – as it probably always does – mixed messages. Perhaps we should read it keeping in mind that much of the fabric of the poetry is generated by paradoxes.

And one of the most telling of the paradoxes is the fact that a book of one hundred and fourteen poems, written regularly during a period of inner anguish, should conclude by naming its own title in the final line. It reminds one of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” though I’m yet to be convinced by readings of that poem which focus on a largely imagined metaphysical structure. In Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness what might, in lesser hands, be the record of a time of pain, inevitably in the past tense, becomes a registering of messages from the self which are preparatory: the body of the poem precedes its title rather follows from it. Oddly enough, the title can be read, on its own, as presenting a benevolent, caring image of the dark rather than a symbol of all that terrifies us about impending mortality. But, even if we accept that there is ambiguity about the presentation of light and dark, it’s hard to imagine that that was what was intended.