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Return and No Shame

Keith Payne

The Work of a Winter, by Maureen Boyle, Arlen House, 90 pp, ISBN: 978-1951321834

Maureen Boyle’s debut collection is asking all the right questions, as well as some of the big ones. What’s worth a poem? What’s matter for poetry? What’s to be hauled back from the old stock, to be reassembled, to be re-membered?

And it seems the answer is, as ever, that you’ll only find out by planting the words on the page one next to the other. By following the roots, as in the many horticultural poems in this collection – fertile ground for Boyle’s imagination; crafting the intricate lattice work for the “espaliered” branches to follow. And being able to use the word “espaliered” helps too.

There are strong winds buffeting these poems that very often “catch the heart off guard and blow it open”. They show Boyle as weather vane –a role Joyce preferred for newsmen but one that is apt for the poet as she catches where the wind is blowing from, and more importantly, though often missed with a watery eye too focused on the backward gaze, on which way the wind is blowing.

The opening sequence, “Incunabula” –from the Latin for “cradle”, cuna, that refers to the first printed books– may at first appear like yet another series of the poet’s childhood memories:

In my childhood home there was a room of books
        left over from my father’s days in Belfast.

But it is in fact Boyle reading the past, and not just recording it –an archival practice that is worthy in itself. She is sorting the threads that will later be woven into the weft and warp of the various tapestries of this collection: birds, ghosts, soldiers and plants; “how to make the perfect Catholic marriage”, or the “ghost brother who had come / before us and who had survived in our imaginations”. Essentially, as we’ll discover with each poem in this winter’s work, Boyle is laying out “the routine of days and hours and minutes” that will be assembled to colour this impressive collection. This is essential work for the poet and though it’s not always necessary to see it in every poet’s work, here it is illuminating to see the writer assemble her material and watch her weave through Blake’s “vision and imagination”.

There is something refreshing in Boyle’s poems in their shunning of the zeitgeist of catching the latest trend as it glides past the screen, of the need to be “here and now” while usually being elsewhere, head in the cloud. Boyle’s settings may at first seem anachronistic. The painting styles are early Renaissance or Dutch Golden Age. The colours are deep and rich: Prussian blue, carmine and chrome yellow. The rooms are spacious and well-furnished in drapes and heavy oak. Yet it’s that very space, whether it be interior or exterior –the anatomy of which Boyle has a clear understanding of – that allows her to reveal the present in the past, the direction the wind is coming from, where it’s blowing and what it’s carrying. And in each case, Boyle catches the scene in these painterly poems long enough to show us a portrait that reflects much of our world today:

I know the brother who painted this.
It is pretty work. But I wash his stains
like all the others, pounding the sheets
so that my soul can be pure.

I have had to give away my rings and paints
but sometimes I steal carmine,
or crush some cherries by the well
and smear my lips to feel myself again.
      “The Magdalene Reading”

The poems inhabit to great effect a far-ranging ensemble of voices. The woman in a Catholic convent on the Ormeau Road, imprisoned long enough to give birth to a child she will be forced to hand over:

I am on the roof this breezy day
in the sixth month of my pregnancy,
picking off the moss and lichen and tossing them
in soft bouquets to the ground.

 […]

I am a billowing blown crow
in my dark work clothes
and this is punishment for vanity.
For finding my face in a bucket of blue.
 “Weather Vane”

To Shakespeare’s Emilia and Hermione; an Irish Queen en route to Palestine; the Franciscan brother Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, one of the authors of The Annals of the Four Masters and Amelia, “the ghost of a prostitute who haunts the Crown Bar in Belfast”.

These are portraits and poems of our social history, the most democratic of histories. Boyle excavates these figures from the past and from beyond the confines of national borders to show us yet again –and yes, it needs to be repeated, especially to the Minister for Education – the importance of history and how it offers among so much else, a perspective, empathy and a future. Through the reading of these poems we may, to paraphrase Paula Meehan, find return and no shame, and with it, a reason to stick around, like Amelia in the Crown Bar:

         I have new things to see – especially the women
who take the space and the men
on their own terms so I may stay a while longer
for there are more stories to hear and in new tongues,
more flowers of lust to water and to tend.

Boyle has done so much here in tending to the past and in turn to the earth where our futures are growing. I wonder if she has given us the response to the unanswerable “what does poetry do?” here in the voice of Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, annals master:

                        It was never my job
to comment or change, even when the old words
offended sense or meaning – mine only
to transpose onto different ground.
      “The work of a Winter”

I look forward to reading more from Maureen Boyle, not just for the clarity of her vision held from a “perching house / contiguous with the cliff”, but also for the pure joy of the “louche” and the “lucubration”, from the “sough of their wings” as these poems take flight after her long and dedicated work of a winter.

1/1/2019

Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .

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