John Jenkins Reviews Peter Boyle

8 August 2011

Apocrypha: Texts Collected and Translated by William O’Shaunessy by Peter Boyle
Vagabond Press, 2009

“No one can count the number of people we have been in a single / life. One death is never enough.” These lines from Apocrypha sum up a theme that resurfaces through the poetic fragments which make up this fabulous cache of texts: fragments which survive from certain lost books by real and re-discovered authors of the ancient world, including Herodotus, Longinus, Theophrastus, Catullus, Plato and others. All have been translated by a certain classical scholar, William O’Shaunessy, who died in straitened circumstances before willing his papers to posterity. And Boyle, or so he would have us believe, has merely put this legacy into order.

But are these really translations, or O’Shaunessy’s own work; perhaps even more impressive for being fakes, deeply poetic in their own right, and products of fine scholarship? Already, we see how Boyle, through his proxy O’Shaunessy, commands a multitude of authorial selves, conjured into being through an ingenious magician’s box, its sliding compartments of attribution neatly nested inside each other.

Although O’Shaunessy has an obvious poetic gift, drawing deeply from the interior plenitude of his own imagination, he has died tragically: alienated and alone, and in abject circumstances. His potential has been chipped back to the bone, reducing interior richness to a teasing residue. Yet, what a residue! And perhaps this is the point. Like Blake’s grains of sand, each text belongs to something much larger – part of lost, incomplete or damaged books, and surrounded by a mystery, such that one wonders what might have been. And this encourages greater receptiveness to what remains: the fragment that contains the whole.

Imagination is central here, celebrated as the numinous substratum of our entire Western tradition – the creative wellspring of our species. Yet, even when most in awe of human works and wonders, we may despair of human greed, stupidity and violence; seeing only the hand of Thanatos at the wheel, reducing all our potential to wars, lost chances and ashes.

Apocrypha‘s additional concern, then, is the continuous arm-wrestling between the possible and the actual, between inner richness and poverty, between infinite resources and cruel reduction; binaries which have long, riddled lives. Their meeting point is always in paradox, rather than paradise, as one ancient author observes of conflicting ideas and forces: “The wall that divides us joins us.” And, later, speaking of reduced circumstances: “Understanding is the dried crust /on the fortieth day of the siege.”

At the same time, richness greatly abounds. The seven books (plus notes, postscript and appendices) of Apocrypha are conceived on a grand scale, across a semi-mythic canvas, and I am reminded of the legends that surrounded the historical Troy, and which lead Schliemann to unearth, in Anatolia, a series of layered, possible Troys, one built on the ruins of the other.

Finds are prodigally sprinkled here, and often haunting. In one passage, the lost music of Parmenides “made the lights in all the houses of Samothrace go out for three days and a profound odour of lilacs and wild honey filled the city.” There is a pervading tone of longing, as when the imprisoned poet Istareion imagines his utterly lost love:

I would nestle above the stillness of your body
I would be the presence that haloes you silence
when, by night, your slender form bends to a flickering light
poring yet again over the Mathemasis
seeking the impossible formula of return,
the number that undoes time.

Magic and moral tale converge in a text attributed to Plinius the Younger: “It is an everyday thing to light a fire then swallow it. Rare is the art of those who swallow the fires that have never been lit.” A postscript wryly observes: “The destroyers of possibility are more highly prized by humans than the destroyers of what is.” Then another chilling postscript: “Learn … of those who swallow the possibilities of others. In the doorway of time they stand … Masters of the future, they erase our memories.” Thus Plinius’s doorkeepers come barbed with contemporary meanings: simultaneously, re-writers of history; bouncers guarding exclusive canons or cultures; death-squads and thought police of repressive regimes.

The Atlantean empire of Eusebius throws a long, toxic shadow, conflated both with Rome at its most self-aggrandizing, and the modern United States (note ‘Eu’ and ‘S’ sounds). Rapacious rulers of Eusebius dream of a World Government in which “everyone could be more efficiently taxed to fund their own repression.” Eusebius emerges as an insane hub of competition, where governance is the toy of a self-serving plutocracy, right reduced to military might, creativity to patent law, culture to a mindless celebration of violence and cruelty, and citizenship to an injunction to exploit and consume. In Eusebian law, the innocent are stoned to death, the guilty applauded!

But Apocrypha‘s vastness also shelters sages and poets, who dream at the edges of lost worlds, including Dionysis the Forgotten, who cherishes witness to the life around him, while knowing the city he loves – all rooms and their occupants – must end as mere absence filled with sunlight. Then there’s the poet Irene Philologos, an exile who lives (like O’Shaunessy) in simple circumstances, yet sustained by the fullness of her inner life. In a very tender mood, the poet Erycthemois declares that for one who understands the nature of loss and emptiness, “the air that rests in the hollow of his palm / weighs more than the moon and sun.” How then, he ponders, is love still possible:

If what is
floats up towards us,
unbearable at times


if all that is
comes back, always to walk
along this seafront where the dunes
are crumbling,

how then do they continue,
          the young women and men whose hands
          silently touch, whose eyes filter
          the distance of the sea and all its summers

Houses are made of water, and books of sand, where we may read of many strange reversals. For example, statues may be designed to look at us, not us at them; oceans float above the Earth, not on it; there are birds not of form, substance and colour, but feathered with invisibility; and empires that – rather than survive vast ages – exist for the briefest flicker of light.

An hallucinatory or visionary quality often captures elusive states of mind, perhaps at the edge of dream or reverie; sudden hauntings of inwardness, such as: “By night the blue dream walks on water. I stand in a room of bones, following in the notes as they fade.” Sensory modalities often fuse into synaesthesia, so music becomes visual and can be physically touched. Distortions of time dog a hapless poet who is only able to copy the words of another not yet born; and citizens must consult “the calendar that moves backward in time, telling you which days to eliminate from your life”. Ordinary things may have secret dimensions, too; and the elders of Eusebius “shrink to the dimensions of small finches, trapped in a dusty cage.”

In an equally fabulous mode, we learn there is an ancient language that “translates stars and rivers into birdsong” and how a certain Mystra first proved that “dreams of water are far heavier than dreams of fire.” Elsewhere, with a shift into irony, we learn how Lycius of Crete completed “the definitive and final study of … the secret working of error … the true nature of the world”. When a reader looked up from its pages, “the sea gaped with myriad holes . . . and birds were removing the eyes of all the statues.”

Often, texts are followed by commentaries from authors of later periods; so, rather than blind competition, there is the strongly collegial sense of voices conversing across the centuries, and of the essentially shared making of poetry. Boyle owes a huge debt to Borges, here spectacularly repaid. There’s a nod to Italo Calvino, too, in a poem whose lines recall chapter headings of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; and one might imagine T.S. Eliot’s “fragments shored against ruin”; or hear whispers of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. There’s a reworking of the J. G. Ballard story, The Garden of Time; other excerpts conjure Edmond Jabes’ Book of Resemblances; while Rimbaud also wrote of lakes that float above Earth.

In contrast to the surprises he delivers, Boyle’s style is even and familiar; calm and reflective. It is also slightly addictive, and you look forward to returning under its spell. It is a very deliberate writing, absorbed in its own calm grain of narrative, yet with a certain lightness and intimacy, and able to shift adroitly. As a form of prose-poetry, it is often very prosy, yet elevated by fine imagery.

Apocrypha could be seen as a salutary, anti-Enlightenment re-mystification of a Western world sadly bereft of its sense of wonder. One might counter, however, that the opposite it true: the West is only too eager to indulge escapist dreams, and retreat into magical thinking, judging from popular fantasy movies, and sword and sorcery genres. In the face of modern ills, we might happily plunge ourselves back into a new dark age of superstition. But Apocrypha is too finely written and seriously conceived to be dismissed this way.

Boyle salutes the West’s buried pantheistic and animistic legacy; those numinous modes of thought that have sustained us for millennia, where wonder pervades both the natural world and cultural dreaming. It brings us closer to ways of seeing of traditional peoples, fostering a deep solidarity with them, and sensitive regard for a larger humanity of possibilities.

Finally, I wonder if the Ern Malley hoax might have provided an example for Apocrypha. If so, it is ironic that McAuley’s and Stewart’s sniping at an earlier local modernism should have enabled this laurel-garlanded heir.

John Jenkins is a Melbourne-based poet and his most recent collection is Growing up with Mr Menzies (John Leonard Press, 2008).

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About John Jenkins

John Jenkins is best known as a poet. He also writes short fiction, non-fiction and occasionally for radio and live performance. He has worked as a journalist and book editor and taught in universities. He lives near Victoria’s Yarra Valley, and is widely travelled. His most recent poetry book is Growing up with Mr Menzies (John Leonard Press, 2008).


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