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.