Prithvi Varatharajan Reviews Peter Boyle

By | 18 November 2016

Most of the poets’ voices are solemn (offsetting the playfulness of Boyle’s introductions perhaps), but there are moments of whimsy. And there is a mix of free verse, prose poetry, prose, and letters. Many of the letters are lyrical and intensely imagistic, such as Ernesto Ray’s: ‘By night faces and images swirl in front of me – troops of lost children, they wander the corridors of that vast hospital that’s still there under the great wintry lake of this city.’ The poets write in the first person, with the exception of Maria Zafarelli Strega, who (with a touch of whimsy) writes in the third in her sequence ‘The Card Collection’: ‘She heard only the sounds no one hears // Poor Maria. If she could just climb out of herself and step down into the other world. Then she could love.’ The mood of the collection is often quietly melancholic, veering sometimes into the gothic and, in style, into surrealism, such as in these lines from the poem ‘What Is’ by Maria Zafarelli Strega:

The face so beautifully intense
mirrors a world outside life.
Horrors have rained down like hammers
and distant stars like griefs
shine in the lines of fingers.

There is a lot of striking imagery in the book. ‘Now in the season of hungry birds / I watch my hand’s crimson thread spill out’, writes Ricardo Xavier Bousoño. Within this abundance of beautiful imagery there is often a tussle between darkness and light. It seems Boyle’s poets tend to favour darkness over light – this is suggested even by the titles of poems across the collection: ‘Ghostspeakings’ by Ricardo Xavier Bousoño; ‘Asphyxia’ by Maria Zafarelli Strega; ‘To Place the Dawn Against the Eyes of Darkness’ and ‘The Time of Weeping’ by Antonio Almeida; ‘Of Blindness and God’s Immediacy’ by The Montaigne Poet; ‘Love Letters From a Vanquished City’ by Robert Berechit. But in the work of the final poet of the book, Québécois Gaston Bousquin, the light threatens to edge out the darkness:

Of the one who sheds light
his eyes they say
light up this causeway of rough stones
of this world’s blackened heart
in this night at the world’s heart:
it’s up to him now to be the light

I experienced Elena Navronskaya Blanco’s poems as being like a rush of dream images. The long, mostly prose poem sequence ‘An Exquisite Calendar for the Duke of Madness’ swims through space and time:

After the rain came the season of rats, of blood red thistles 
and boundless peaches, the sudden growth of fingernails,
of fields laced with blue skies and immense plains that
metamorphosed into storks. Those were the curiously 
curved afternoons when families deciphered codices in the
cool of the orchard and when black swallows visited from
their kingdom of midnight under the earth.

While the title of the sequence refers to madness, to me the shifts in perspective are often more evocative of dream logic than of madness, for instance: ‘For many months one year we lived in the capital […] I / remember there was a small hotel where we stayed one night / —when I fell asleep it was on one side of the boulevard and, / when I woke the next morning, it was on the other side.’

My other favourites in the book are by the ‘little known painter, writer of abandoned novels and a small collection of poems,’ Federico Silva, whom Boyle tells us was a Catalan writer who also used the pseudonym Umberto Suarez. I particularly love the gentle fluidity of his prose poetry (in contrast to the rush of Blanco’s), for instance in the poem ‘Of Memory’:

In the bedroom one of the cupboard doors swung open and
the tattered coat of the late Princess shimmered with its halo
of moths. There was no moon but a streetlight crossed the
floor. Have you forgotten me already? It was my great-aunt’s
voice meek as a bowl of milk left out for the cats that lived
in the vacant lot behind her house when my father let his car
wander through all the least reputable streets of the port.

There is a messy quality to the book that is reminiscent of a scrapbook, with extra fragments (interviews, brief footnotes, additional translations) stuffed in wherever there is room. This heterogeneity of material, on top of the heteronymity, may overwhelm some readers. Having initially browsed the heteronyms and their various voices, I then dipped into the book in the way you might browse a scrapbook, stopping where a poem or turn of phrase caught my attention. My only real criticism (if it can be called such) is that the voices of the various poets sometimes seemed to bleed into each other, more often in mood (as I have highlighted) than in style. But this coherence of mood is perhaps to be expected in an anthology featuring work ‘translated’ by only one poet: Boyle. Here the conceit of Boyle-as-translator explains the coherence but also allows room for incoherence arising from individuality in each of the fictive poets’ voices.

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