Peg Boyers (Continued from here).
The idea of inseparability is key. “Forty Days” becomes a prayer for this kind of higher understanding. The irony is that the idea of looking to be free from the cycle of desire, of yearning, from the Wheel of Becoming, is itself a desire, is it not?
A less certain approach would be to write a poem “about” the painting – in other words, to describe it. One can certainly get somewhere from such a starting point but, more likely, be effectively consumed by the painting rather than create anew. Here, “Forty Days” – the painting – is not the subject but rather a kind of lens (darkly).
I should point out that, having seen it, any intelligent person might see the world outside, at least at some point, as a Bosch painting. This could be another way to describe depression or, at least, exasperation with humanity, dark night of the soul, etc. Forgive my lingering over this most accessible poem, one far less challenging than others in the book. The point is that, at least for the amount of time the poem is fresh in our minds, we are delivered from the poem’s content and at least moving toward that higher understanding, somehow detached from the “inexorable cycles” of desire, ravishment and regret.
Sweet demon, hand
me your tail, guide
me to the glass chamber in the garden,
the roiling center.
I am reminded of many things, among them a mother describing preparation for a bar mitzvah as “torturing” her son for six months; the Catholic television priest, Fr. Corapi, saying, “there is no cross without the crown,” the unashamedly sophomoric Incredible String Band describing mythical-“mockical” highwayman Hiram Pawnitoff attaining enlightenment at the end of a stout wooden club, and Peter Gabriel chanting, “you gotta get in to get out.”
We do not write poetry by describing things; we suffer experience and we suffer with only the kind of certainty we can have about what we do not know: The mystery.
Again, Fr. Corapi: “To the degree you can become humble, you become open, and receive the grace of God and you can do beautiful things.”
Through humility we experience the abundance in tiny details to which we would otherwise assign little value (judgment) and discard – more or less subconsciously. Through humility our senses become more accessible to our thought processes.
“Forty Days” is not a picture of insanity. This poem/prayer is a picture of sanity: The faith and courage to live wholly in the real world in which loss, suffering, degradation and death are undeniable.
The writing and the apprehending of a poem in this way becomes and approximation of the human process of individuation, a key component of which being the understanding that the mind and external reality really are, after all, one thing. Peg Boyers does not merely remind us of this but, in daring sorties to confront weaknesses, fears, shortcomings, violations, betrayals – all tests of faith – prompts us to recall to reconnect.
Consider the compromises sketched in, “The Bad Thief is a Mother.”
For him alone explored
the devil’s neighborhood.
There's a winky bit of double entendre there that shouldn't be overlooked in the course of explication; however, even as I cannot pretend to understand a mother’s sacrifices and only as I recall another poet’s line – “I want to be pure” – and recall Pound’s brash declaration that “no artist should be allowed to have children” do I realize again what the Christian conscience is about: It has everything to do with our children. The irony of all that is,
There’s nothing left for her to do
but hang there
Even the blank line here serves as poetic content since it magnifies the sense of a disconnect. Is it also disunity? Not really. If we accept the doctrine of the Trinity as explaining the “why” of human existence as union, then true blasphemy is the statement that implies separation of God and humanity. Certainly “hanging” implies a state of limbo. What Boyers does here is to use the poetic imagination to liken the mother’s “purpose” in life with the Trinity, the “why” of human existence, and in doing so she gives us a “why” of poetry as well. Poetry belongs to this sacred union as a link that enables us to understand.
This is cause for rejoicing, for no one better illustrates the poetic truth of another spiritualist poet, Kenneth Patchen: “beautiful and terrible are the things of this earth.”
When I consider a single fact of my own father’s short life, the industry with which he was most notably associated, I am somewhat at a loss – disconnected. When I consider his whole life -- that he was raised Catholic and that, for him, involvement in this industry constituted a very serious sin, I start to wonder at the “blank line.” Then I realize that my father’s sins would eventually prompt me to consider my own connection via the Trinity … that this was always God’s will. By this token, if my father had been a much bigger sinner, I would, by now, be a priest or even a bishop!
Again, it is impossible to read Peg Boyers without conscious reflection on one’s own life.
Boyers’s visualizations, her settings, certainly carry romantic content (literally and figuratively). Yet she is always moving from dreamlike states to clarity, using animation, precision and the dual edge of irony as in, “Molting toward heaven,” in which the speaker declares,
The oblivion of the saved
is their damnation.
Consider this imagery from “Abanico Habanero”:
My first fan, the one I remember, was long
on my arm and definitely Cuban,
a grown-up feminine defense
against tropical heat, flapped
with flamenco severity to conceal
a coquette smile.
"Flamenco severity” is so evocative for all of its economy: We compare the deliberate, theatrical movement of the fan with the sharp, rhythmic step, the uprightness of posture, lyrical at times but always on point. And consider the alliteration, consonance, rhyme … but this cinematographic image dissolves:
Old flirt, old worn-out glamour puss
old peacock’s tail,
ancient ornament, you turn to dust in my hand.
The vision throughout is not sober, but sobering, from a Christ vision, “bathed in night sweat,” to:
from your chalk mouth the words forgive me,
from mine, the impossible no.
This consistent movement from dream or dream-like states to cold reality --:
I watch the imprint emerge slow as a Polaroid.
-- is no mere procession but rather a sublimation. We are moving toward a union with God brought about as in “Family Portrait:”
It’s the bland fifties but the news
has not reached Venezuela
where the bougainvillea and hibiscus
obscenely bloom …
… Our Ava Gardner mother flashes her Hollywood smile,
glamour-plated, seductive, calculating.
She leans over us, connects with the camera,
pulls us toward the lens with her greedy eyes.
Obviously there is contrasting “movement” here … the counterpoint to the overall movement of the poem represents the opposite of humility as if the camera lens represents the devil and the truth, which cannot be captured on film in this moment (the invisible), is God.
I wonder how many of Boyers’s generation and mine must have been aware of a sense of fraud to the implied permanence and well-being of a family portrait at a time in history when such fraud, the fraud of appearances in general, was being question so roundly (from the Bertrand Russells and the existentialists to the beats and hippies, specifically). I know I felt this way … perhaps with a deeper sense of impending doom and helplessness, if I recall correctly. And this doom certainly played out for me as it would for quite a few “generation gap” families. The price of knowing beyond one’s years (of being “hip,” perhaps), to be cursed with seeing (not in the sense of mania, reducing experience to cartoon dimension, but seeming to see past, present and future as one) is to suffer the family portrait, surrendering one’s identity, having one’s soul stolen for a picture implying unity but hiding all kinds of nasty divisions. The camera can lie. It divides, rather than unifies, by capturing only outward appearance.
Now, again, I must confess an unusual affinity for a Boyers poem that few readers can share: A Leo-Taurus marriage suggests, if you look at it a certain way, pride in appearance. As a son adopted into this sort of family, I can see this particular aspect as courting the camera lens … that “devil,” if you will: Surface appearances before sacred truth. Of course it takes a bit of devilishness to point this out. In my own defense, I beg you consider that I was 15 when the big family portrait was arranged , 15, and thus very much at a stage of desiring to be “real” and also to be “detached” and beat-cool while, in reality, being very insecure, uncertain and certainly a bit gloomy. The reality that followed (and not so long after the portrait sitting): Job loss, serial business failure, a devastating, prolonged cancer and death, a mysterious death (suicide? murder? accident?), another cancer death (this one before the age of 40) among a total of five people in the photograph. I am, at this point, one of two lucky survivors of the damn photograph! Do you see something terribly Victorian about the formal family portrait?
In a sense, Boyers has condensed a family saga into one, compact, poem much more revealing than any actual photographic portrait. The scorpion sting of her words makes it memorable. Even if it’s a “made up” family, it is hard to imagine anyone laying the situation so bare. Beautiful yet disquieting, like the works of Louise Gluck but more familiar in every sense, Boyers writes about dreaming and dream-like states but her purpose is to awaken. She is ever-focused on the human situation. To recall, while being mindful of the present, is to connect with a whole that is greater than the sum of parts.
I have discussed some obvious points. What remains to be explored is the poet’s talent for connecting specific to universal. Now I, in no way, can or should claim the particular insights of motherhood, nor the loss of a child as in Deposition, the book’s second section, another sort of family saga. Yet here is the jolt (consider the electrically equipped cinema seating for The Tingler, a William Castle-directed Vincent Price thriller) of “Agony in the Garden.” A jolt or shudder at the startling conclusion … perhaps if I’d heeded the foreshadowing use of a security camera but, as a reader, I was lulled, waiting in the garden with these parents, this Adam and Eve. The use of present tense – perhaps that’s it – to be frozen in a moment like the security camera image with a broken connection to vital information. The quasi-Biblical setting points to sacred truth, to universal understanding, to Creation, obviously. Yet it is powerful poetry that can spark an electrical surge or shudder in a grown man. Poetic truth, it seems, can have very real consequences.
Now consider the dry, almost witty use of vernacular and the technique of animation in, “Anunciation”
What was only dread has taken up residence.
Many of the poems build into or from a sense of place, but while they are certainly cinematographic, the critical components are often invisible: Aromas, scents, the ethers. These certainly invoke both recollection and a sense of dreaminess yet, like Sylvia Plath’s, “the air is a mill of hooks,” it is a wind of sudden violence.
Boyers is aware of what she is doing in a sense probably not available to Plath, and she lets us in on that secret in a singularly postmodern fashion: She gives us the very fitting literal symbol of the hand fan (“Abanico Habanero”), which connects past and present, flesh and spirit, visible and invisible, via the shattering of illusions.
The device (not even the “first” fan recalled but a later one and therefore, a substitute) fades like memory:
Banal landscape bleeding through its verso,
lines of the past too faint to read.
The irony is that, in the end, even near the end, the human form itself is as fragile as this stick-and-paper prop. Boyers artfully refrains from obvious words and phrases like “bone cancer,” or other description of the mother’s condition, which cannot also be used to describe the fan.
Consider this abrupt modal shift:
In Cuba the sign for a fork in the road is a fan:
rays spread out like a card hand,
flicking out and in,
ida y vuelta,
paths converging on a single point.
Such a detour from the vortex of the poem, the field of vision, to describe a mundane but specific use of the fan as a symbol must be terrible important, and it is: Its shape reflects the movement from specific and personal to universal, but, more than that, it is Logos, emblematic of grace, divine and otherwise, the Pentecost, all those things together and more, the stuff of humility. It is quite clearly Boyers’s hinge.
Figuratively speaking, a repeating shape, as within a masterful painting, underscores the organic unity of all things. This poet clearly has something to say to us: Forms, including memories, fade or crumble, but as long as we are able to express the truth in words, our connection to the Divine, the eternal – our sanity if you will – sustains us. This is a poetry that neither plays with us nor invites us to play, but dares to define itself as not merely relevant but somehow “essential” and that is … its essence.
Perhaps it also prompts us to take a second look at the confessional poetry with which we’ve become more or less familiar and see if it is as exact, as natural and as ambitious in its universality as in this surprising collection from Peg Boyers. I don’t mean this in the usual sense of setting standards or “measuring up” but in the way one experiences the reading, whether one is asking questions of one’s self, finding new rhythms in one’s thought processes, or even in the promises one makes to one’s self about being open, caring, sympathetic, loving. It is my feeling that poetry of this caliber can help us to actually live well … to “live” at all, in fact, and not merely reside in some (possibly someone else’s!) sort of dream … as those who live in envy, fear and repression certainly do. It’s an idea Boyers’s work certainly suggests and one that does not merely advance the cause of poetry but also the cause of humanity … two not-so-different things.
-- © 2009 by Robert S. Preuss