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: 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.

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.

Peter Boyle: Ghostspeaking

Newtown: Vagabond, 2016, 370pp.

The simplest way to describe this remarkable book would be to say that Peter Boyle has invented eleven, mainly Spanish-speaking, twentieth and twenty-first century poets and made a fictional anthology which is a selection of his English translations of their imagined work. Beyond that it’s rather difficult to describe it accurately. One could look to Boyle’s Apocrypha published in 2009, another work of great ambition and sophistication, for comparisons and contrasts. There we were given an anthology of imagined lost texts delineating a version of our own world but, whereas the focus of Ghostspeaking is fairly tight (the dominant language is Spanish, the oldest of the poets born just before the turn of the twentieth century and the youngest in 1965), Apocrypha ranges over a vast expanse of human history – nearly two thousand years – actual and fictive.

And Ghostspeaking isn’t entirely an anthology – there is a lot of novelistic activity going on inside it as well: the lives of the eleven imaginary poets are sketched in and their relationships and interactions with the author brought to light in a way that makes you think of an author’s professional journal/diary with translations appended. And at another level, Ghostspeaking could be described as an extension of the well-known genre of what might be called “the text-based uncanny”. It is full of the markers of this genre including mysterious manuscripts appearing in the post or being discovered hidden away in a barn. There is even a gramophone recording, found among business papers. In keeping with this genre, identity seems compromised at all points. Lazlo Thalassa an “eccentric Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins”, for example, who initially claims his work is itself a translation of a manuscript written in Persian on the shores of Lake Ohrid by a “heretic refugee from Urbino” turns out to be Miguel Todorov, a research scientist specialising in plate tectonics and significantly sharing a surname with the scholar known for his work on the fantastic (or uncanny) as a genre. This is an extreme case (the Argentinian Elena Navronskaya Blanco is, in contrast, biographically positively demure) but the overriding sense is of identity as a kind of vertiginous labyrinth among people who are at the behest of “forces larger” than themselves. It extends to the author himself who at one stage receives a letter addressed to Peter Doyle and, in another, is mistaken for the late actor of the same name: his response to this (in a footnote to a passage dealing with his translation of Lazlo Thalassa) is important for the ideas that lie behind Ghostspeaking:

I remember, several years back, a friend sent me a link to a blog where a young woman had just published one of my poems and one of her friends had posted: “I’ve always loved Peter Boyle. Everybody Loves Raymond is my favourite programme. I never knew he wrote poetry.” I wanted to write to say I am not Peter Boyle the American actor, but was I sure? By then he had been dead several years but he seemed much more alive than me. Perhaps in some way I was him, lingering on under his name, slowly acquiring his face now he was gone. Perhaps I had always been his amanuensis. How can anyone know that someone else isn’t writing them? And I thought: maybe all the dead have the same name.

Although the idea of ghost-speaking is a complex one in this book (involving, especially the idea of “ghosting”) this would be a case, literally, of a ghost speaking.

This generic element in Ghostspeaking (there is a similar though much less significant element in Apocrypha) seems to me the least interesting part of the book but this may derive only from my sense that it is a tired, creaky old genre. At any rate, during my first reading of the book I fought against it, dreaming of a purer (or perhaps merely more extreme) version of the book: a faux traditional anthology with only brief biographies of these poets introducing selections of their work and omitting the poets’ dealings with the anthologist altogether – as one would in a conventional anthology. But you can see why it was never possible: the editor would have had to create a rational for the inclusion of these, and only these, eleven poets and one can’t imagine how this could have been done. In Ghostspeaking they select themselves by their various involvements with Peter Boyle.

One could approach Ghostspeaking from quite a different angle and see it as, at heart, a collection of poems by Peter Boyle which, of course, in a sense it is. This would lead one to explore the relationship between the eleven poets and their creator. Are they genuine heteronyms in the Pessoan sense or simply masks that allow Boyle to extend his range? I’ll leave the answer to the first part of that question to experts but my sense is that are not true heteronyms. They are not speaking parts of the poet’s unconscious which simply emerge as fully fledged individual poets. I think Pessoa somewhere invokes the idea of a class of “semi-heteronyms” and that might turn out to be the best description of these eleven.

On the surface it is the poems of Ricardo Bousoño that most seem to resemble those of Peter Boyle from collections such as The Blue Cloud of Crying, What the Painter Saw in Our Faces and The Museum of Space. This might explain why he appears first in the book and also last – thanks to a collection of poems imagined to be written (and translated) later in a newer, simpler style. From an included interview we learn that Bousoño is Argentinian by birth, gay, and, fundamentally a non-political poet. He is also in a permanent state of exile – symbolic of artists generally. He fled from Argentina to Brazil after the military coup of the mid-seventies and lived in São Paulo before moving to Spain and thence to Mexico. Boyle, as all readers know, is a passionate verse-ethicist concerned with the cruelties and viciousnesses of the world. Bousoño is somebody who has lived in places where injustice and oppression are far more overt than they are in, say, Australia. But he has never taken the route of becoming a political poet, like Neruda. This is both an unconscious choice – the political poems to be written from exile in Brazil simply never occur, despite his efforts – and a conscious one: “I didn’t want those bastards to think they’d captured my psyche for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give them that satisfaction”. Speaking of Juan Gelman (whose son and daughter-in-law were “disappeared” in Argentina’s dirty war) he says: “I respect Juan Gelman of course, there’s no need to say it, for all he does, though seventy percent of his poetry is I think pretty slight, one-dimensional or very thin . . . I could never sit down and write poems of witness”.

You can see the relevance of Bousoño to his creator here: how does one deal with the miseries of the world when one’s location and experience prevent one speaking as a witness. And what would being a witness do to the poetry anyway. Poetry of documentation has the problem that it puts the recording of injustice (and other acts of evil) before poetry itself. Ethically this is probably quite defensible. But poetry is a despotic force itself and is quite likely to ensure that such poetry remains “thin”.

The poems by Bousoño in his section begin with a breakthrough poem, “House Arrest in São Paulo” working the idea that the place of exile is a kind of house arrest. The mode is what I would call Latin American surrealism though my knowledge of this literature beyond the inevitable figures of Neruda, Vallejo and Borges is so lamentably weak that I only have the vaguest general impression. But, for me, it’s a poetry where the demands of “the real” are loosened to the point where revealing and valuable imaginative gestures are made and allowed to determine the direction of the poem. And so in “House Arrest in São Paulo” the image of living in a coffin runs through the poem and becomes a symbol of the inevitable destiny of the poet. In the ninth section we meet another trope of this kind of verse, the figure whom the poet moves towards who is, in reality, his future self:

He is waving to me
 from the farthest room
 at the end of innumerable corridors:
 the ghost I will become.

 in the history of the universe
 has so tenderly familiar
 a face.

But, as one might expect of a breakthrough poem, it contains its poet’s obsessions even if in embryonic form. It focusses on exile: “Once the nomads have entered you / there’s no way of going back, / no way to slow the chaos in the blood” and on the ubiquity of evil in a world where “We are all torturers now”: “Say this only: / what happened elsewhere / speaks now because / there is no elsewhere”. Flight from oppression and the ubiquity of evil turn up in later poems like “I Do Not Trust That Word ‘Oxygen’” and “Freiheit”: “Just by breathing and accidentally / opening your eyes you see them, / Prussian outposts” a reference to the fact that Argentina proved a happy home from home for Nazis fleeing Germany after the war.

Bousoño’s final poem, “Threads”, imagined to be written in a “late”, pared down style retains the themes of the earlier poems but is mainly obsessed by the desire to prevent the world being “disappeared”. To this end it uses the unusual device of long, thin lines (usually no more than a word or two to each), in a way reminiscent of Ken Taylor’s “At Valentines” which, coincidentally, dealt with rather the same issue. But the lines are imagined as threads, appearing in three columns per page, creating the impression of threads which might be plaited to hold on to what is likely to be lost. The poem is quite explicit about it:

. . . . .
 these small photos
 and swaying
 at the piano
 (another of
 my tribe who
 got away)
 my lover
 the pianist
 as on the
 raft of
 his life
 a plaited band of
 at his wrist
 . . . . .
 these sounds
 I utter
 threads we
 weave to lay
 hold of
 the past
 the sounds
 the last threads
 holding things
 after they have
 after the
 nameless ones
 smash the china cups
 shred the photos
 empty our apartments . . .

I dwell on this at some length not only because it is the book’s final poem but because the word “threads” forms a sort of motif running through works by other poets included and if we were to adopt the tactic of reading Ghostspeaking simply as a book of poems by Peter Boyle then it would be an image whose significance would need to be explored in detail.

Threads certainly figure in the selection of poems by Antonio Almeida. If Bousoño is a poet of translocation, Almeida is a poet of visitations. Though these two things can be related (one thinks of Rilke’s endless travels awaiting inspiration) Almeida and Bousoño are entirely different animals with, one suspects, an entirely different set of possibilities for Boyle. Almeida’s poems and fragment of autobiography are tightly enmeshed as part of a narrative conception built around complexly interlocked frames. The overall tone is overtly of the uncanny. Boyle, even before his career as a poet has begun, suffering his own inability to begin to write, stops off in Rome and is met at the airport by a woman who knows to look out for someone of his age, his inherited Irishness and his limp. She takes him to her father whose poems he will translate. Almeida himself, in his autobiographical sketch, describes his own inability to talk as a child and his meeting with Rilke in Ronda (where his father works in the hotel where Rilke will come to stay). Later in life Almeida meets up with Antonio Machado, who shares a railway carriage, at the point where the events described in Machado’s “Iris de la Noche” occur. Later in Uruguay, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, in a state of entire despair after the death of his wife (as well, you feel, as the accumulated miseries of the world described in “The Time of Weeping”) he meets up with a mysterious prophetic visitant (perhaps one of Rilke’s angels) who re-establishes his identity and warns him to leave the country when the violence begins and so Almeida is able to flee to Rome with his daughter and her two children. In Italy he publishes a small book of poems. In Ghostspeaking all of this takes place in reverse. We meet the poems before we meet the autobiographical material that makes sense of them (or better, provides a context for them). Boyle’s meeting with him and his daughter in Rome comes at the end. To complicate these matters in an interesting way, the ”translations” of Almeida’s poems are dated and they are translated in exactly the reverse order to their appearance (presumably in the order in which they appear in the Spanish-Italian edition published twenty years after his death).

As a compressed exercise in uncanny fiction this is brilliantly done and it may only be my lack of interest in that genre that makes me undervalue this component of Almeida’s story. But the poems themselves are rather marvellous and the way in which the autobiographical details illuminate the individual poems is exciting. Since Almeida is a quiet figure whose life is never going to be explored in detail by literary biographers, the only facts we have are those briefly recounted in the autobiographical sketch. So it’s a matter of putting a prose text next to a poetic one. The little twelve-poem selection has at its centre a café poem in which a long mirror doubles everything; the first poem is called “Waiting” and the last “Conversation While Waiting”.

Staying with the question of what these created poets have to offer Boyle, their creator, there is the case of Lazlo Thalassa (Miguel Todorov) whose poems are flamboyant, often grotesque and, stylistically far from the poems of, say, Almeida or Federico Silva which retain, despite their celebration of the possibilities of an unrestricted imagination, just a touch of distinctive orotund solemnity. Thalassa’s long poem Of Fate and Other Inconveniences shares the preoccupations of much of the poetry of Ghostspeaking but allows itself to be written as a kind of faux newspaper-headline summary of the parlous state of things (“Public opinion managers replace counsellors and statesmen. Meanwhile plague and war remake the earth”) followed by a more conventionally toned but equally grotesque poem. Number ten (of thirty) for example:

(Meetings by night on mountain passes. Cinqueterra’s journey to the Eastern Marches interrupted by rival film crews. Fortinbras and the Afterlife Investment Fund move west.)

Sent back from Parinirvana he sees:
 the golden pulse of the sun spinning
 wildly like a potter’s wheel, dry
 salt-crusted earth and a sagging
 banyan hung with voodoo dolls.

Later Thalassa translations include a tour-de-force describing the arrival of the god of love in seventeenth century Venice (coinciding with the invention of opera) and a monologue by Prince Myshkin, imagined to have been translated to Mexico City (“on the sidewalk the blare of a city / workmen demolishing whole blocks of humanity / gourd-carvers knife-grinders hat-hawkers taxi cabs fruit stalls”) accompanied by a letter from a guilt-ridden Dostoevsky to his own fictional creation apologising for having dragged him from Switzerland to enter his novel at that remarkable and justly celebrated opening of Idiot:

. . . . .
 Maybe every life is like mine.
 Maybe every life has so much guilt
 it outstrips us,
 a shame so large
 there can never be room for the saying.
 Maybe that is why we have ghosts,
 those detached portions of uncontainable guilt
 that go on trying to speak . . .

In other words, these are themes familiar from the book but in a very different mode. One suspects Boyle is exploiting the tonal possibilities opened up by what is called the Latin-American neo-baroque here: he is, after all, a translator of José Kozer.

In this respect, a final poet worth looking at briefly is Ernesto Ray because his poetry is of a deeply different kind to the others. Imagined as a popular Puerto-Rican singer-songwriter in New York in the 1980s he abandons popular music for a much harder road. When his partner begins to die of cancer he produces the poems of his only, posthumous book, which are designed to be spells: that is poetry of the most ancient, performative kind. Ghostspeaking includes parts of the preface to his book:

Magic is not easy. Spells are not made casually, don’t happen just because we want them to happen . . . . . What pleases people immediately, what can be understood immediately, is incapable of casting the deep resonances that make poetry happen. The language of a poem-spell needs to be more wrought than that. One-dimensional poetry, linear poetry that can be pounded out at a New York rap club, that thrills the youngsters or fits neatly into the thematic units of educators and academics, none of that can work any more. Not for me at least. Not for what I need now.

The resulting poems are not at all what one might expect from a poetics built on the idea of magic: they never name the sick woman, for a start and are oblique in other, surprising ways (most of them are about other women, for example). The final poem is, if not a spell, then at least a prayer built around a homely pair of coloured sandals:

. . . . .
 although this dark world grabs at you
 you have stepped
 onto the soles of an altered shining
 that these simple swirls of colour may
 spiral up your legs into your inmost
 core of being . . .

Although each of these eleven poets represents a figure Boyle can inhabit and exploit (perhaps Dostoevsky’s letter to Myshkin should be read as an apology made by Boyle to his poetic creations) I can’t help but feel that Roy’s comments about poetry (“I don’t want audiences drawing me back into well-worn stories of who we are, what we suffer. Identity isn’t magic. The poet magicians weren’t hung up about the dividing lines between their people and other people” and so on) are close to Boyle’s own. But that would be something that was very difficult to prove.

Peter Boyle: Towns in the Great Desert: New and Selected Poems

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 237pp.

Peter Boyle is one of the best and most fascinating of Australian poets not least because he is so unlike all of the others. His poetic origins – and continuing influences – lie mainly in the twentieth century poetry of the Romance languages, especially the distinctive surrealisms of the French and the Spanish and he has an abiding interest in the postcolonial poetries of the Caribbean and South America. Towns in the Great Desert is a new book with an appended selected poems. Though Boyle’s first book, Coming Home From the World, was published in 1994, the selected poems here is dated 1988 – 2009 and you feel that in 1988, the bicentennial year, one might have described Boyle’s work as profoundly, and interestingly, un-Australian. Things have changed in the last quarter of a century. The internet means that the default set of influences for a new poet is no longer necessarily the local. All poetries are available to everybody though, poetry being what it is, it is hard to think that the influence will be a profoundly shaping one unless the poet is (or makes him- or herself) fluent in the language of the original. Boyle’s biography suggests that his initial interests were linguistic and the new languages brought with them new poetries which animated his own poetic talents.

Towns in the Great Desert is a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself, once more, in the Boyle world. For a critic though, it’s a very difficult world to describe since a surreal approach means that poems tend to set out on a voyage of their own rather than one in obedience to thematic imperatives that can be worked out by a bit of careful attention. I have often wondered whether the first poem of Boyle’s first book, and of the selected poems here, “From Instructions Given to the Royal Examiners in the State of Chi”, shouldn’t be read as a little parable about both Boyle’s writing principles and the readers’ experience of reading the poems. This poem is a set of ways of, in a sense, missing the point or, at least, the formally required point of evaluating the correctness or otherwise of the answers of a candidate for China’s imperial examinations to enter the bureaucracy. “Examine the candidate’s state of mind” it begins, going on through “Assess the longevity of his nails”, “Calculate . . . the expression of his face” until these swervings become more and more extreme:

Identify the direction of the wind
as it hurries the leaves of all the provinces
away from everything known,
brushing them with the 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.

Whether it’s a poetic credo or an “advice to my readers” this catalogue of indirections is about abandoning precise tasks and foci (beautifully conveyed by the phrase, “limited starlight”) in favour of an imaginative widening of focus even though the mechanism behind the widening appears illogical: what significance can the direction of the wind have to an examinee’s answers, after all? But it’s worth noting that the examiner doesn’t drift off into a set of solipsistic fantasies: the examination paper gets marked at the end of the poem.

It’s always dangerous to focus on the first poem of a poet’s selected poems – partly because it looks a lazy and obvious critical tactic – but thinking about Boyle’s poetry often leads me back to it. There are, of course, plenty of other poems which hint at Boyle’s poetic principles and methods. “Poet Visiting a High School” from the second collection, The Blue Cloud of Crying, speaks of writing poems in terms of extreme concentration and a concurrent loss of self:

. . . . . 
For a moment the room before her
is as empty as the sky is empty.
How to tell them
what their bodies crave most -
that look of selfless devastating attention -
is the listening and the seeing her mind gives
to absent things
. . . . .

We seem to be in the world of Simone Weill here but the poem finishes by speaking about almost technical matters: the way, for example, a metaphor, brought it to illuminate, can grow a life of its own, pulling the poem away from its intended theme:

and how to speak
of all she herself would call failure -
the poems where what was there seemed too obvious
too given
till an ungainly metaphor interposed itself
and the more she struggled
the more it grew
strangling all else . . .

It’s not entirely clear where the failure lies here – in the obvious “givennness” of the material the world has provided or the metaphor which, like Laocoon’s sea-serpent, rises up and strangles it – but the focus on imaginative expansion and the effect it has on writing poetry is clear.

There is also, from the next book, What the Painter Saw in Our Faces, a poem called “The Gardener”. Typically of Boyle, the way the poem approaches its issues – What is poetry? What is it worth? How does it relate to the real and unreal, the macro and micro, the external and internal? – involves an initially unexpected tactic. Where we might have expected a personal lyric – “I sit in the garden and think about poetry” – what we get is a monologue spoken by a spirit induced by poetry. She’s a muse figure but also a sympathetic fellow-practitioner, perhaps, or even a reader:

“You practise the silent art”, she said 
looking into the narrow garden where a bird
passed rapidly. “You move in isolation
from recognition or audience.
And what you place on the page
is mostly read by no one and
what you value in the way the words fall
or run together,
pointing outwards to the world
and inwards to a private reticence,
is something not explicable to others.
Your silent unwanted art draws me.
I have been dead long enough to hear
the cadences you hum under your breath at midnight . . .”

Finally, in this little sampling of Boyle poems which cast light on his principles and practices, there is a prose poem, “In Response to a Critic’s Call for Tighter Editing” from The Museum of Space. Its title tells us that it is going to be about reactions to his poetry which find it all too free: if imaginative transformations are encouraged because they replace the limited starlight by wider perspectives then what is to stop a poem simply spinning endlessly out of itself into infinite possibility? What kind of shaping process – form – can be imposed which is not a reductive imposition? What is interesting about this poem is that it doesn’t set out to justify Boyle’s poetry so much as to enact its principles:

A poet should be able to write outside of the human in all sorts of directions. The moon is one of them. Water that has just bubbled out of the earth is another. Of course they are distant cousins as intimately related as the wind and a sandgrain.

If I was the moon I couldn’t practise what I would say. I would have to be empty and desolate. Everything would happen by instinct like tides responding to my slow ballet. I would be ignorant as a worn shoe condemned to dance forever over subterranean waters. My cratered eyes would guide me through space and my children would say, Look, he comes from forever, he’s on his way to forever. He’s the one blind man whose walking stick is the glide of small fish over sand, the waterfall that flows simultaneously in both directions.

I think there’s a lot of comedy here underpinning the basic point that it should be possible, by empathy, to make oneself into something non-human. But structurally it also seems to me to be deliberately linear, rejecting the circularity that can give a sense of enclosed form. After the statement that, imaginatively, we can become something else the poet becomes the moon but instead of making a lyrical conclusion at that point (the kind of thing that says “I brood on the world beneath” only a lot better) we are hurried on to the moon’s “children” and finish up with a paradoxical metaphor that presents us settling comfortably.

Of the four poems I have chosen for this little anthology of poems about poetry – and I could have chosen excerpts from many of the other poems – only the first appears in the selection made in Towns in the Great Desert. But Boyle’s poetics are everywhere so apparent in the poems themselves that they don’t really need “poem-poems” to make them clear. The first principle of this practice is the drive to expand experience imaginatively by using the various tropes as a way not of defining with increasing precision but of bringing hitherto unconnected worlds of experience to bear on existence: as an early poem, “Robert Frost at Eighty”, says, “I think there are poems greater and stranger than any I have known. / I would like to find them”. The tension here will be with conventional notions of form because these usually, as I have said above, involve some kind of return to the beginning – with varying degrees of subtlety and sophistication – that produces a circularity that is pleasing to most poets and readers but not to Boyle. “Robert Frost at Eighty” – in one sense about a poet who can be described as an arch-formalist and, at the same time, as someone with a barely acknowledged surreal sensibility – is unequivocal about technique and form:

I have done with craft.
How can I front ghosts with cleverness,
the slick glide of paradox and rhyme
that transforms prejudice
to brittle gems of seeming wisdom . . .

And a poem from The Museum of Space, “Of Poetry”, connects the limited, descriptive function of metaphor with the world of politics and, inevitably, suffering:

Great poems are often extraordinarily simple.
They carry their openness
with both hands.
If there is a metaphor lounging in a doorway
they step briskly past.
The boom of generals
and presidents with their rhetoric manuals
will go on sowing the wind . . .

One way in which this expansive and expanding imaginative drive emerges in Boyle’s poems is in images of passages, cracks and doorways which open from a narrow and confined world into a larger one. In “On Reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Memoirs” a child on a sickbed, with only a single small window above him “constructs the universe” inside that narrow space: “I do not need the great game of having lived. / Fantasies wide as the Amazon / merge and spin in the river of clouds”. Similarly there are, as might be expected, poems that speak of journeys outward into larger perspectives. One of the most appealing of these is “Journeys” from What the Painter Saw in Our Faces in which the imagined voyage away from “every known formality: / work, income, house, family” takes place on a rickety local bus somewhere where everything is incomprehensible and mildly – though comically – dangerous:

. . . . . 
and seated beside me old women and their grandchildren
bumping along in the same bus,
speaking only village dialect I can’t recognise,
and smoking and flicking lighted cigarette stubs about
in back of the bus that rolls around with spilt petrol
and when I try in some patois of the islands
to warn “hati hati benzin”
they all break out giggling and toss
little sparklers at me
as we lurch forward,
the first stars above the coastline
winking at my elbow.

If doorways open onto wider imaginative worlds it makes some sense that Boyle’s poetry should so often be concerned with dimensions: not only the inner space of the mind and outer of the world but also the simple matter of the opposition between great and small. “Homage to Federico Mompou”, celebrating music’s great minusculist, begins “The holy city should have a name so small / there is almost none of it left to grace a grave with” and another homage – to Cesar Vallejo, an important poet for Boyle’s poetry – says “A poem or a life / ripples between such trivial and such portentous matter . . .”

If imaginative expansion is one pole of Boyle’s poetics, the other is an obsession with worldly suffering. In fact the first three books could be seen as a continuing, and rarely entirely successful, attempt to bring these two themes together. In Boyle’s world there is nothing of the self-obsessed cult of self-improvement or “self-realisation” and empowerment about the drive to widen the skies that we live under – it is essentially an ethical matter. But getting the dispossessed, the oppressed the tortured into the poetry poses a lot of questions. I know this to be true because Boyle’s first three books twist and turn in the heroic attempt to manage it. If the first poem of the first book, “From Instructions Given to the Royal Examiners in the State of Chi”, is, tonally, relaxedly surreal and elegantly inhabits an imagined reality, the second poem, “Never Again”, which takes its title from a report into the “Disappeared” of Argentina’s Dirty War, is about human suffering (in South America, Spain and Manilla) and the way, for example, that conquerors, the wealthy, evolve ways of growing “protective layers of moss / to block humanity out”. These two poems establish a kind of binary which is pursued throughout the first books.

But the suffering of “Never Again” is marred by its abstractness and its tendency to use individuals, when that strategy is possible, as symbols of mass suffering – something that seems inadequate and a diminution of the pain of the individual anyway. At various points in the first three books these portraits appear, notably in “On Sydney’s South-West Line” which details the lives of refugees who have made “the long journey / from Saigon or Bucharest or El Salvador” to finish up in Australia’s largest city. Perhaps the best expression of the difficulties and tensions between poetry and the theme of human misery is to be found in “Japanese Poet on the Train to Medellin” where a Japanese woman poet, about to visit the world of “the rapist and the murderer / and the crack dealer” wonders “what can her singing / bring to them?” The solution, at least of this poem, is that the poet:

. . . . .
will sit – she sees it now – on the bare floor
. . . 
and she will sing whatever she can sing
in the darkness of the single cell
obliterated by the light
in all the heat and all the misery and all the evil
that is our earth.

You can begin to see the problems involved here and the issues are far larger than the work of one poet. A preliminary sketch might look like this. The art which best expresses suffering seems to be born out of the suffering community – the blues of the deep south is a good example, as are the gypsy songs which inspired Lorca – though one wouldn’t want to be naively organicist about this. At any rate, Australian poetry (probably English language poetry generally) despite its variety is a poetry that seems comfortable with a sense of groundedness and “comment-from-the-sideline” when it comes to large social experiences. At its best, of course, it can be very good at the inner world, at registering the complex topographies of feeling but it doesn’t really have the tools to deal with suffering as a human phenomenon – perhaps the cultures have simple been too spoilt by the tides of history. The poetry of South America speaks beautifully about suffering, for example, but when you import that style it doesn’t mean that that ability will be imported as well – there is a kind of species barrier between Spanish language surrealism and the Germanic poetic world which ultimately cannot be crossed. And that suffering is, itself, complex – an anatomy of human suffering would have a lot of sub-sections. One of the things that makes the poetry of the first half of Boyle’s career so important is its attempt to solve some of these problems.

Perhaps the largest single attempt is the final poem of the third book. “What the Painter Saw in Our Faces” (substantial selections of which are included in the selected poems section of Towns in the Great Desert) begins with an iconic experience of suffering, one that recurs in Boyle’s poetry, of people being ejected from their homes and driven onto the road in a war:

The lightning in the sky
and everything taken from us.
The three days’ walk to the frontier,
the burning villages,
police coming suddenly to tell us to get out . . .

But the poem’s strategy is not to make an anthology of suffering, a description of “the undifferentiated scrapheap of loss” but to do something much more daring, something which runs the risk of seeming ridiculous. It imagines a minor painter in another galaxy some dozen years in the future, receiving light from earth (it’s taken a while to get the requisite distance across the universe) painting a still life not of the suffering but of the instant before the suffering begins – though there are “frontier villages already smoking”. This idea of the moment before catastrophe begins – in which the catastrophe is, in some sense, present – is embodied in Poussin’s painting of the moment before Eurydice is bitten by the snake (the painting forms the cover of the book). And the central question is:

What kind of animal are we?
The animal that wounds its own kind.
The animal that only loves through wounding.
 . . . . .
So we trade our life for a falsehood - 
so we line up people against a wall in the name of dead stone,
so we excise a lover
suddenly after breakfast because that’s what you do.

It’s a remarkable, major, poem and if it isn’t entirely successful that is because of the scale of its ambition and the difficulties it is trying to solve. One of these is the position of the observer, the poet: sometimes a sufferer in the nightmare, sometimes an outsider, sometimes the observer from outer space. But the inner world is always implicated in the outer world and so a description of suffering at the macro-level either induces or demands a matching inner state on the part of the poet. While it’s never possible to tell what parts of poems are “personal” in the sense of based on the poet’s actual experience and what parts are dramatic projections, one can say that the mode in which Boyle deals with interiority is essentially elegiac. The world inside the poet himself is never celebrated in an exuberant, Whitmanian way.

If there is a pattern to the books after these first three, it seems to be that the unresolvable paradoxes of the poetic portrayal of suffering are pushed to one side. Suffering remains a major – perhaps the major – theme but the way of “treating” it seems to have settled into a far more abstract mode – the mode of the poem about the examiners of Chi, rather than that of Sydney’s South-West Line. A good example might be the first poem included from The Museum of Space, a book which, in my mapping, marks the beginning of the second half of Boyle’s career. The “Parable of the Two Boxes” – the first, the smaller, holds “Self-righteous evil” and the latter, the larger, holds “A great emptiness” – is not reducible to the simple binary that its title suggests and I don’t want to devote a lot of space to trying to understand it here. But it is important to show that the issue of suffering and oppression hasn’t been abandoned and so statements such as that in the small box you can sometimes hear “the small clink of power” and that large box (full of earth and the cities which have bled into it and the glass and bones which have dissolved there) is the box of “what is done to us” are significant. As is the final couplet, “What can you do then? / Yes, what can you do?” wherein the first question is a genuine ethical one and the second question makes the mistake of reading the first as a mere rhetorical question of barely concerned helplessness.

The book after The Museum of Space is Apocrypha, a brilliant work – to my mind one of the pinnacles of recent Australian poetry – which I have written about previously on this site. Conceived as a kind of anthology of alternative literatures from the Homeric period into the middle ages (alternative because embodying the sort of imaginative expansions of experience which, as I’ve said, underlie Boyle’s poetics) it strikes a new balance between parabolic abstraction and the presentation of experience. It also contains more humour than most of Boyle’s earlier poetry especially in its descriptions of the United States under the name of Eusebius, a culture “renowned for its ferocious greed and the savage destruction it dealt to others”, where corporations take out rights to individual words and things like the present tense, and punish and enslave anyone “transgressing” those rights and which has, as its mantra, “Male me narrow, narrow, narrow.”

And so to the first half of Towns in the Great Desert, a completely new book, essentially Boyle’s sixth full book of poetry. This seems undeniably in the parabolic mode I’ve been describing. It’s made up of four sections and the first and last share something in common. The first section – which gives its name to the whole book – is a catalogue of eleven imagined towns, recalling perhaps, Calvino’s Invisible Cities. What strikes me about this sequence is its lack of the more obvious and available unifying structures, things like the frame narrative of the reports to the Great Khan that Calvino’s book deploys. In other words, we might say that Boyle’s imperative to imaginative expansion spins this sequence out in such a way and into such areas that it seems more like an anthology of dreams than a sequence. Even the Great Desert, which one might have expected to form a unifying location for the eleven cities, is inconsistent. In the first poem, for example, it is traversed by a frozen river while in the second it is next to the sea and the desert seems to be, in the manner of the ancient mariner, a wilderness of salt sea. Some of the poems announce themselves as dreams while others (the fourth and sixth, for example) are elegant inventions in the Calvino mode. The ninth poem describes a not too subtly disguised Las Vegas where “Hard-wired to adolescence, / at thirty the people of this town return / to being aged twelve”.

When the theme of suffering appears in this series it can do so in a surreal way – as in the first poem. Here one female character “wakes from a dream of pounding doors”, recalling the way in which the victims of ethnic cleansing are driven out in one of Boyle’s iconic images of suffering, and another woman “arrives with two children asleep in a matchbox”. In the fourth poem, the suffering of the poor appears in the kind of elegant, abstracted parable that – I’ve tried to argue – is the more common mode as Boyle’s poetry develops. The whole poem has the quality of the imagined worlds of Apocrypha: a town suspended (in the style of Swift’s Laputa) above the river bed is set up so that the rich occupy the best-positioned levels to “harvest potential raindrops”:

“In the Sleep of the Riverbed” is the book’s final section. Again, it has a very unpredictable strategy, imagining a riverbed (significantly not the river itself, the “vast mirror I ferry helpless / beyond the autumn sun”) altering its course to speak with the “raw shadow” of the ghost of Lorca. It’s an extended, nine-part poem and not at all straightforward. Its core image, the winding river, is a significant one in Boyle’s poetry where rivers seem to divide the world into two banks variously related to each other and, at the same time, provide a moving mirror in which the underwater reflection of the world in the air provides a dreamlike experience of a related world in water. The riverbed of this poem marks the sinuous border between the humanly occupied, cultivated plains and the stony, dry mountains. This isn’t the place to try to tease out some of this poem’s complexities – exactly where the speaker is the riverbed and where it is Lorca’s ghost would be one of the first issues a reader would bring to the poem – but I’m interested in its approach to the issue of suffering. We meet pain, almost as an abstraction, in the third section:

Pain begins its heavy surgical intervention
in the diseased bark of a sapling,
in the tortured frame of a cypress
compulsively vomiting green oxygen.
Pain continues its journey
as the fish hook snagged in the eye of the penis,
as the speck of blue and crimson glass
travelling the infinite hour
between night and dawn.
Pain inscribes its trajectory from
the roots of the oldest elm
to the bud of the opening flower
releasing its prayer to the sky.

And then, of course, there is Lorca himself – an iconic poetic victim of politically inspired brutality.

The twenty poems of the second section of Towns in the Great Desert would make an ideal introduction to the more positive side of Boyle’s poetry. “Calendulas” is a list of possible, extreme transformations organised (by a pun on the name of the flower in the title) according to stations of the calendar:

In winter I am an old man, naked and in socks,
sprinting through the birches of Scandinavia.

In spring I am a young girl watching wisteria blossom at the edge of a well:
dark water is breaking through fissures in the earth . . .

As the examples of transformation progress they become more extreme though they still obey laws of association. Just as Winter can be connected with an old man and Spring with a young girl so Easter Monday can associate with a sister rising from the grave and the Equinox with a fish holding a golden balance. The core of the poem, under its baroque examples, is the notion of the miracle of the humble plant flowering through cracks and thus this poem can serve as an example of that movement of the imagination up and outwards which is so important to Boyle’s poetry at all levels:

A crack in a vase,
a break in a wall
that opens on spinning silence,
a whirlwind of dust . . .

These poems provide many examples of such cracks. In “New Year, 2009”, for example, there is “a narrow break in the unending cloudbank” and “To a Day in October”, a poem framed as a set of prayers, asks the “darkening wall of a collapsing body” to “let light stream through every ragged chink”. Celebration of the experience of imaginative expansion is the keynote. There is a fine poem, “The Small Grey and Brown Birds That Recite the Lost Books of Dante”, which imagines that the birds of the Blue Mountains, little creatures with “diffident chittering” are actually carolling “their canticles of bliss upon this earth” a bliss that Dante was able to find only in his extra-worldly Paradise. Finally one would want to mention two other fine poems. “(an afternoon with you)” is an example of a surreal celebration of (presumably, based on the title) the erotic drive of which John Forbes’s “Rrose Selavy” is another example. The metaphors explode into the extreme so that the afternoon “unites reindeer into passionate prayer circles” and “humbles your average ninety-course banquet on the slopes of Mt Everest” but it also has the power to mess with dimensions since it “minimalises all maximalists / maximises all minimalists”. And then there is a two part prose poem, “Crow”, in which a phenomenon is explained in alternative ways. Someone surprising a group of crows hears not the mournful sound we associate with that bird but a rhapsodic birdsong (the poem puts it rather more elegantly). The issue is whether the crows have been surprised speaking their natural speech and the hearer has been granted the experience of hearing what the birds say when they think they are free of expectations about how they should sound or whether she has short-circuited an expectation in her brain that crows should be mournful and by cleansing the doors of perception has heard things as they actually are. It’s ultimately about the inside and the outside and is quite an epistemological and conceptual issue. It reminds one of the discussions of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that you can’t enter the same river twice which asks whether that is because the river has changed or because you have.

The third section of the book is another set of twenty poems, made up of ten night poems, “Nocturnes”, interspersed with ten other poems sharing similar themes. The nocturnes are all built around a dreamscape of a house in a valley at the edge of a lake and seem to exploit the different transformative possibilities of the situation: in the first, the view can be transformed into that of an Asian village – “stupas with their prayer flags, / the white rooftops where clothing / beats out its own life-story against / the freezing knives of the dark goddess”; in the second the strata of time can be breached so that “A young boy from a century ago stands there waiting for someone to turn up with a crate of beer”; in the third the house is imagined to enter the lake – and so on. But the theme of these poems is not so much transformation and imaginative extension so much as writing itself – “I write in darkness across illegible paper”, says the first poem – and the way in which the act of writing is involved in these processes: does it simply notate transformation, for example, or actively create it? The sixth nocturne seems to equate writing with a way of navigating through life while following the suggestions of the imagination:

. . . . . Walking tentatively on air, I travel with eyes closed, knowing how my pen (with some errors) travels the way of the dark, trusting in its free-fall, cut loose from light’s security and all ruled margins. Truly in the white flesh of the eucalypt’s bark I have come down to earth.

I’m not sure how confidently one can add this to the anthology of poems in which Boyle speaks of his practices and poetics but the idea of a pen travelling the ways of the dark and, in a sense, leading on its trusting author, is an attractive one. The dark, here, of course, is the fertile ground of dream which is a form of imaginative freeing and expansion, but it also, conventionally, suggests to readers the “darker” side of the world, the spectre of oppression and suffering and acts as a perhaps unintended reminder that, although the suffering world, in the later Boyle collections, is less awkwardly and insistently present, it is still there.

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,

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.


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.