Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness
by Peter Doyle
Death’s intrusion upon love is an old complaint. Philosophically, in Western Europe, it may have emerged as a problem in response to ideas of human limitation in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. This was early materialist thinking intended to prepare the late Roman mind for the finitude of life, belief, control and pleasure. The poetry of death-in-love is another matter. It is characterised by rage, disbelief and helplessness. It is ancient and myriad.
Just southwest of where I live in central Victoria, the Keerray Woorroong language group keeps a version of the Seven Sisters songline that crosses the continent. This songline might comprise the First Nations stories that are best known to non-Indigenous Australians. From my limited perspective, receiving the local story as a creation narrative in isolation from its other cultural purposes, it appears to be about sisterly love interrupted by sexual pursuit. Forming a constellation (also known as the Pleiades), the story reflects a dangerous situation that might play out again in social life. While my understanding of it is partial, it makes me think about other storytelling traditions that bind love to mortality.
In the classical Greek tradition, mutual desire is as dangerous as unwanted pursuit. When Sappho refers to Helen’s flight to Troy, she acknowledges that ‘Not for her children nor her dear parents / had she a thought’. Love ‘led her astray’. Happy union is impossible for this kind of love, which feeds the impulse of lyric poetry: I am here, you are there. In lyric, so often love poisons life. Even before the lovers’ mortal separation may be glimpsed, their love is ruining what could (not) have been.
The poetry of courtly love swoons in the performance of this separation. The English Renaissance poet Isabella Whitney writes ‘To her unconstant Lover’, expressing the typical masochism of courtly love poetry, describing the experience of being jilted in terms of grief. Parsimonious, her voice dramatises the chaste romance of lost love: ‘You know I alwayes wisht you wel / so wyll I during lyfe’. Although her ex-lover has actually married somebody else, he is dead to Whitney.
My book-length poem, Final Theory was written as I lunged into an epic new relationship and became engaged to marry. The couple that narrate one half of the book, modelled on my fiancé and I, are resigned to their mortality in a climate-changed ecology. Their demise is a physical law. I was anticipating a future in love: as a result, I killed us in poetry. Why did I want to imagine the end of my relationship, at the beginning? Did poetry allow me to make a pre-emptive strike on the inevitable – the end of the species as well as the individual? Or did I believe that I could weave a charm against death?
In his book-length poem, Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Peter Boyle returns to this ongoing conundrum. Early in the poem, he invokes physics to express the exasperation of losing a lover:
And all the processes, the chemical formulae,
the string of vast equations that explain,
do they explain anything?
But Boyle isn’t writing to resist death; he knows it is already happening. The death-in-love is that of his partner, philosopher and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose. In a brief afterword, Boyle shares that Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness was written during the nearly two years of treatment Rose received for terminal cancer. He completed it a couple of months before her death in December 2018.
Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness starts with this knowledge of mortality. What can it deliver to the poet and to poetry? How to hold love without the lover? How to write grief? What more can writing do, than mourn?
Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness is not an elegy. It is dedicated to the memory of Rose, but Boyle reveals a purpose other than commemorative. This is a poem for the living.
Having acknowledged the autobiographical aspect of Boyle’s book, I am going to distinguish him from its speaker. I am not a formalist, but – with respect for the real human behind this piece of work – my intention is to reply to what is offered by his page.
Boyle has spent decades insisting on a split (not a dissonance) between himself and his poetic voices. Self-consciously metamorphic as a stylist, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on heteronymy: a practice that defined his last book, Ghostspeaking (2016). He has tried dramatic monologue in Towns in the Great Desert (2013), and has an illustrious career as a translator of French and Spanish texts. As Kate Middleton observed of his creative ventriloquy, ‘the results are not parody’. Boyle uses voice to refer to influences and ideas: a provocative way of doing quite explicitly what other poets try to bury. He ‘wishes to create a dialogue’, says Middleton, ‘between the traditions out of which he conjures these poets, and the tradition in which he writes’.
At first, Enfolded might seem to be Boyle’s most homogenous use of voice yet. The poem is spare in its phrasing and sparse in its rhythm: illusions of simplicity and directness. A stylistic distinction of the book from his others would befit its personal gravity. But this is no bereaved confession, no Birthday Letters; nor is it a grandly public lament. Uncomfortable in the funereal suit of genre, and despite his formal control, Boyle lurches between different voices and modes throughout the book, searching.
This ambulant movement follows the influence of surrealism on Boyle. The imagery in Enfolded drifts between waking and dreaming. This is the dreadful moment of awakening to loss or upheaval, temporarily forgotten in sleep, the yearning to go back into unconsciousness just a bit longer. In dialogue with surrealism, Boyle seems to be searching for an authentic way to style grief:
as a matchbox of ashes
handed you by a stranger
on a vanishing street corner
one long rainy night
Sometimes this slippery imagery and enjambment becomes nightmarish in its challenge to external reality.
— It is an ancient world he said, disconnecting the wires from his head and the nails poked through both his cheeks
Horror, though, is not the dominant effect of Boyle’s surrealism. Enfolded can depart without warning from representationalism, then flit back to it like a weightless insect. What it departs to is a non-specific animism, a faery realm – a forest, a house in the trees, abandoned buildings, an angel. This realm, which recalls the magical sensibility of Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, is rarely comforting, though it is often beautiful. Rather than offering symbols, Boyle’s images are the apparitions of his speaker, whose psyche seems to be regurgitating all the poetry he has been fed.
If poetry provides Boyle with a language for grief, then it might be able to deliver an authenticity of expression that no other form can. Perhaps Boyle is influenced by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, also fed on surrealism, who pursues a purity of affect that is probably unattainable. Judith Bishop has written of the poetics of desire in Bonnefoy’s work, which conveys the ‘impossibility of satisfaction with the projections of subjectivity in writing, and the loss of presence in the labyrinth of images’.
In Boyle’s poem, the reduction of image to metonymy installs a water-thin curtain between observation and imagination. Like Bonnefoy, Boyle is able to compose phrases and images that invoke two referents – material and philosophical – at once.
the last poem leaves its trace
on the wall of time
an emptiness mark
a blank space
This synthesis, this renewal of hope for meaning from within the ‘labyrinth’ of signs, is related to the myth of Orpheus, which has been especially loved by a tradition of modern male poets, from Baudelaire onwards. Orpheus’ lover, Eurydice, is consigned to the underworld; providing the singer, Orpheus, with a lifetime of inspiration. Poetry will redeem her presence, and that of all dead things.
Boyle indulges the Orphic motif in Enfolded, inviting a consideration of this tradition as another way to voice grief:
little by little
we saw her shape going back, receding and fading
brief narrow flame
of the underworld
I’m resistant to the ethics of this myth being used as an analogy for poetry: not only from a feminist viewpoint, but more broadly in the sense that it reduces the dead body to aesthetic repetition. Orpheus, the living, represents the long echo of lyric elegy: Only I am here. A poet’s compulsion to write this echo down is the same one that compels us to write in the first place: I was here.
Boyle, however, inhabits Orpheus critically. Rather than projecting a singular subjectivity, he turns a kaleidoscope of she, we, you, I. The poet may have redeemed the dead, but he is not alone. It is ‘we’, he says, who are looking into the underworld. And sometimes it is ‘I’ looking back. Criss-crossing these thresholds with Boyle, we might for a moment feel confident that the speaker is addressing the dead –
You in your resting place
under the fallen masonry
— only to find, a page onwards, that the dead seems to be revived:
this gentle machine.
Similarly, Boyle braids present and past tenses: ‘What was I assembling? / It is not my life’. But his speaker’s negation is disingenuous; Boyle’s poem constructs a long present, in which we could be reading about before-death or after-life.
The influence of Deborah Bird Rose’s work on some of Boyle’s peers has been increasingly acknowledged. Stuart Cooke and Michael Farrell, for example, have referenced her work. For Rose, humanity’s lack of compassion toward other species was as much linguistic as economic or scientific. She noticed how depersonalised language between humans – the language that normalises social and cultural oppression and exclusion – carries over into colonial, urban and industrial discourses about animals in particular. Rose championed the ‘antidote’, as she called it. She was a sensitive researcher and stirring communicator of ways of knowing and being – particularly in Australia, but also globally – that offer empathetic storytelling about the Earth.
Boyle’s poetry doesn’t explicitly signal an ecopoetic or decolonial purpose that could be linked directly to Rose’s work. His orientation is more modernist, and he knows it. Wandering in search of voice, he even at one point makes a cheeky attempt at a trans-species poetics that seems to reference Cooke’s recent collection Lyre (2019):
Perhaps a code left
piece by piece
as a bird
or what the plankton dreamt
when the seas
bore the churned foam
But this is more than winking poetic play, and these lines gesture at ideas beyond human grief. In the second half of Enfolded, Boyle’s dialogue with himself quickens. He questions his choice of words and images. Here he is not only in dialogue with his influences, but reaching to follow the connections proffered by the poem. Its slippages of subjectivity create haiku-like tangents, both organic and mechanical:
the bent strip
of pain that unfurls
from my skull to my tailbone
of the traffic all night
The swerve of this passage – from the cosmic to the banal, the human to more-than-human – is redolent of Bashō, also of Paul Celan and Pierre Reverdy. As Enfolded unfolds, though, it must reconcile itself with more than literature. While it poses a compelling problem for language, Bonnefoy’s Orphic desire to redeem a ‘loss of presence’ feels inadequate to Boyle’s task. Too static, perhaps, too constrained. Like a drying Polaroid, Rose’s presence reveals itself within Boyle’s ideas.
Writing about Rose’s influence on poetry, Cooke offers a definition of form: ‘Poetry … is contoured like an irregular topography – it might surround us, depart from us, it might bleed into the terrain’. This is an apt description of Boyle’s shuffling of chronology and subjectivity in Enfolded. The effect – a psychic and vocal ‘bleed’ or continuum between the poem’s fragments – might be likened, in Boyle’s words, to
with a pickaxe through
its blind centre.
He adopts Rose’s notion of terrain explicitly, picturing the changing condition of grief as
a house with no walls, no windows
where the wind and the small
creatures of half-suburban scrubland
glide freely in and out.
In his afterword, Boyle notes that his redrafting of the poem changed its original sequencing, which had reflected the seasonal order of its composition. While the effects of climate, seasons and light may be glimpsed in the poem, Boyle has scrambled such an easy causal logic. A poetry for living, he shows us, will have to be harder won than observing new growth after winter.
When Boyle invokes physics early in Enfolded, he reiterates a legacy of the Enlightenment; a philosophical tension between scientific and poetic explanations of life. In this way of thinking, some of us imagine that a vast gap has opened between human knowledge systems, and that we have to choose one. But when a railway platform or a cup exists on a plain with ‘the angel of light’ and ‘the woman who lives / in the trees’ then why should we insist upon the suppression of metaphysical knowledge or experience? The terrain of the speaker’s grief reveals a fluidity between material and enchanted reality that is not so much the product of the unconscious, as evidence of another world in this one.
In my cultural tradition, dominated by Victorian Protestant mores, a quiet death is praised. A rigid binary of the living and the dead is preferred. Quick and efficient relief of suffering for both the moribund and the grieving is ideal. Metaphysical excursions may be entertained, but to integrate them seriously into material structures would be morbid. Extended grief would be irrational. One must hasten towards death, or away from it.
Boyle’s poem displaces the illusion of a rational mind. In doing so, Enfolded is governed by suffering. But what does this mean? Is suffering the essence of life, or the enemy of it? Is it a pathway or an obstruction? While Boyle’s speaker can hear ‘uninterrupted keening’ coming from a tree, his styling of grief across the length of the poem is more meditative than that. For a long time, I thought meditative meant tranquil. Living with someone who practices meditation, I’ve discovered that it demands restlessness and pain, those itchy signs of life.
Once I found my husband, a Buddhist, outside a shrine in Tokyo. He was prostrate before a bodhisattva. I asked him why he was bowing to statues. Wasn’t he reifying the material? Wasn’t he abasing himself before an illusion? No, he said; the graven image is just a reminder. I could touch those rocks, instead, he said, or sit here and meditate, listen to the traffic, or tell my beads. There is nothing behind the figure, he said, it is just a reminder of unavoidable suffering.
whose answer is yourself
Within the continuous string of fragments that comprises Enfolded are two distinctly subtitled segments. In the first, ‘(Revelation on the forest path)’, a shade consults the speaker directly. Her message is not at all cryptic. She insists upon the transience of all things, particularly of the literary ego:
You build elaborate porticoes where no one will enter,
where nothing has entered
In the second segment, ‘(Stepping from a dark bedroom onto the wide veranda, daybreak)’, the speaker sees ‘a river of tiny specks / where my life grows invisible’. This image of continuous metamorphosis will form a motif throughout the poem.
Since any segment in the entire poem has only an ellipsis to separate it from the next, arguably these two subtitled segments have no end. Boyle has set them apart only to let them bleed into the rest.
We, the living, occupy a liminal terrain with the dead. It is a house open to weather that feels insecure, but still provides corners of shelter. Shadows and light fall in unpredictable spots through a hole in the roof as the moon rakes over.
In Boyle’s cosmos, liminality, suffering, are forms of entropy:
until they block
death’s little sisters
the few cells
that come back
It’s not easy to find peace with mutability. What should we fight for, if at all? As Enfolded advances, Boyle’s speaker returns to that image of the underworld, ‘the void’, but the character of the reference changes. Whereas his initial invocations of the void suggest an absence behind language, the image gradually manifests as specks, motes, grains, glass fish, glitter and other starry matter of scattered points:
Translating the book of rain
while walking in the presence
of the rain
Through this shimmer – a term Deborah Bird Rose adapted from First Nations philosophy to describe trans-species love – Boyle’s speaker recognises the ongoing presence of the dead lover in the living world. The company and familiarity are joyous:
like a tree
rooted in the earth
that outlives us
is it the light that emanates
from the dead
Language might be a way to capture energy, to cast this shimmer a little further, a little longer in ‘a world / rushing into extinction’. To behold loss with equilibrium, poetry might remind us of the imprint of the dead within our own voices:
the lost forests
that are never lost
‘The pure line is in there’, says Boyle’s speaker, and it seems he is referring to the Earth.
What use would it be even if you could find it?
I would not find it; I would become it.
And while Rose appears as the philosophical guide of the poem, Boyle’s side conversations with poets continue. Enfolded has one ear turned toward Anne Carson’s reply to classical Greek lyric. Carson’s attention to the fragment and epitaph ‘holds open textual space to the praise of thought and song that might otherwise be lost’. I think this is true of Boyle’s poem, too. Like Carson’s work, it is preoccupied with ‘how to aptly figure emptiness in language, an act that hinges on making present’.
In the final pages of his poem, Boyle follows this recognition of presence through longer, freer verse sections, in which he explicitly links breath and image into chains. In doing so, he opens out his initial Orphic reference, banishing the agony of its paralysis.
To be and not be: our absence
always hand in hand with
at the threshold
His reference to Shakespeare resolves the poem’s engagement with a tradition of death-in-love. They might be didactic and even grandiose, but these lines earn their place. They relieve the poem’s struggle with loss as absence. They lead us out of a labyrinth of language, and into a terrain of it.
Near the end of the poem, Boyle describes two confounding settings. The first is ‘old Portugal’, where the speaker’s brother, who refuses food and drink, might be dying. The speaker is compelled by the place, the dignity of its urban surfaces, which bear marks of generations of humanity at every turn. The city is like a body, but whether a consumptive or receptive one is hard to tell. The second place he visits is in a dream: a sort of satanic womb where humans can be seen at their endless work of reproducing existence. The speaker’s part in this realm, to learn and make poetry, is shown to be vain. His words evaporate into just more ‘hollow notes’. What to make of these excursions, which feel like psychic spasms? He wakes in fright to the utterance of the word, ‘Oblivion’. It is as though he has been spat out of the underworld.
Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness is a journey of sorts; neither linear nor heroic, but certainly profound. It is a struggle between dark and dark. How to interpret the suffering of another, of the Earth, and of oneself? Whereas other poets have found ways to bear witness to telluric presence through language, Boyle is working at the hinge where psychic and material reality meet. He bears witness to his own lyric continuity as a poet, but through his polyvocal skill he makes this an act of humming fluidity instead of solipsism and cacophony.
Boyle chooses mutability as a rule of structure and voice, as well as image and theme. Whereas it first implies dread and powerlessness, closer attention to his poem’s title reveals a surprising image of care and relief. The darkness that Western classical tradition associates with an underworld, so easily blunted by gothic and surreal associations with anti-nature, is paired with an image of embrace and elevation:
a laying bare
To bare oneself, in grief as in language, is to find oneself being held.
Elizabeth Asmis, ‘Lucretius’ New World Order: Making a Pact with Nature,’ Classical Quarterly 58.1 (2008) 141–157.
Judith Bishop, ‘On Yves Bonnefoy,’ Jacket 14 (July 2011).
Peter Boyle, Towns in the Great Desert (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).
— Ghostspeaking (Vagabond Press, 2016).
Anne Carson (translator), If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho (Random House, 2003).
Bonny Cassidy, Final Theory (Giramondo Publishing, 2014).
Stuart Cooke, Lyre (UWAP, 2019).
— ‘The Ecological Poetics of Deborah Bird Rose: Analysis and Application,’ Swamphen 7 (2020) 1-18.
Vicki Couzens, ‘Kuurokeheaar, the Story of the Seven Sisters,’ Culture Victoria.
Karla Kesley, ‘To gesture at absence: A reading-with,’ Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (University of Michigan Press, 2015) 88-93.
Todd May, ‘Love and Death,’ New York Times (26 February 2012).
Kate Middleton, ‘A Kaleidoscope of Experience: Ghostspeaking by Peter Boyle,’ Sydney Review of Books (9 June 2017).
Margo Neale and Sheona White, ‘Creating and Curating Songlines,’ National Museum of Australia.
Harold Ramis (director), Groundhog Day (Columbia Pictures, 1993).
Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (University of Virginia Press, 2011).
— ‘At the Edge of Extinction: Blessings in a Time of Sadness,’ CEEEC Laurentian University, Canada (6 February 2014).