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.