Prithvi Varatharajan Reviews Peter Boyle

By | 18 November 2016

As I was writing this review a friend asked me about the ethics of poetic ventriloquy: about the ethics of an Australian man inventing Latin American poets. The question was posed around the time that Lionel Shriver gave her speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, on the topic of cultural appropriation. In this speech she argues that what is referred to as cultural appropriation is at the heart of fiction, and that writers of fiction need by necessity to write from cultural perspectives outside of their own, in order to write at all. The main counter-argument to this, which played out in the media afterwards, was that writers in positions of cultural power (white, male, heterosexual) have a responsibility when they appropriate the voices of the colonised or the historically oppressed, a responsibility to represent them in full rather than stereotypical ways so as not to do more damage.

The question startled me somewhat, as I hadn’t been thinking of Ghostspeaking in this way. In reading the book I’d been struck foremost by the formal aspects of the writing, the beauty of the language, and the generosity of imagination behind these creations. I’d been thinking of aesthetic matters. But when I consider the political implications of Boyle’s ventriloquy: yes, he invents Latin American, French, and Québécois poets, but he does so with a depth of knowledge about the literary culture and history that these poets are embedded in. Boyle has published translations of other (real) Latin American, Spanish, and French poets, and is versed in these literary cultures. The poetry is self-aware, too, evaluating what it is doing while it is doing it. Take these lines by The Montaigne Poet:

Anyone could have written this poem. I say it to myself. Maybe I wrote this poem – or maybe a young girl who wants to feel what it’s like to write a poem, or maybe an elderly man who wants to feel what it’s like to be a young girl dreaming of writing a poem.

The effect of these lines lies in their provocation to lyricism, to expectations that come with lyric poetry. The lyric tradition has encouraged coherence of voice in the poet, and has encouraged the reader to map this coherent voice onto an individual person. There are not many poets in the English-speaking world who have challenged this tradition by experimenting with heteronyms. Alongside Ghostspeaking are: Georges Zuk: Selected Verse (1969), The Underwear of the Unicorn (1975), and Zuk (1982) by Canadian poet Robin Skelton, featuring ‘translations’ of a heteronymous French surrealist; Saracen Island: The Poetry of Andreas Karavis (2000) by Canadian poet David Solway, featuring a heteronymous Greek poet; Usher (2009) by American poet B H Fairchild, which contains poems by his heteronym Roy Eldridge Garcia; Philip Salom’s The Keeper of Fish (2011) and Keeping Carter (2012), ‘written’ by Alan Fish and M A Carter respectively; and Boyle’s own Apocrypha. Such books look beyond individuality in lyricism, and suggest that the lyric might also be dramatic, that it might sing in a polyphony of (ghostly) voices.

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