A Kaleidoscope of Experience: Ghostspeaking by Peter Boyle
Published August, 2016
The first poem by Peter Boyle I ever read happens to be a useful precursor to the work he does in Ghostspeaking. The poem is ‘Nine ways of writing an American Poem’, which appeared in the book What the Painter Saw in our Faces (2001). In this poem, Boyle mimics different trends in American poetics, ranging from radical plainness (as in, ‘If you put/ your hand/ in fire/ it hurts’) to experimental poetics (‘Open paratwang/ of helio-/ trope in/ door-/ way/ en-/TRANCE). The nine variations of this poem inhabit a wide array of voices and modes, and show a metamorphic voice at work. Within these variations, Boyle gives a broad performance of different poetic gestures and postures. Since reading that poem, I have become acquainted with Boyle himself, while students studying at the same institution.
In Ghostspeaking, Boyle revisits the project of abundant voicing; yet ‘Nine Ways of writing an American Poem’ only takes a reader of his work so far as a primer to Ghostspeaking. In this new work, Boyle looks away from the centres of Anglophone poetry that so often form the tradition with which Australian poets place themselves in conversation, and instead seeks alternate points of correspondence. The eleven ‘fictive’ poets that he conjures for his reader here are poets that are exist in ‘translation’, from non-existent bodies of work in Spanish and French. While Boyle’s versions of American poetry parody various American poetic movements (and the title itself, of course, nods at Wallace Stevens’s ‘Thirteen ways of Looking at a Blackbird’), the work of Ghostspeaking moves beyond mere gesture and allows new bodies of work to emerge. The results are not parody, though they contain echoes of the poets of European and Latin American modernism. By creating larger bodies of work for his eleven poets, Boyle allows his gestures to consolidate into real voices. As such, the work of Ghostspeaking unveils the truth of its epigraph: Boyle cites Alejandra Pizarnik’s words, ‘I cannot speak with my voice – only with my voices.’ Here, Boyle’s voices teem; the twelfth voice that stitches them together, that of the ‘translator’ we may as well call Peter Boyle, is equally fictive, equally real.
Ghostspeaking is a significant entry into the realm of heteronymic poetry. Most famous of the heteronymic poets is Fernando Pessoa, whose oeuvre contains the work of dozens of fictive writers, each with their own biography and style. Within the realm of Australian modernism, heteronymic verse looms large in the figure of Ern Malley: as James McCauley and Harold Stewart sought to undercut modernism, they instead created a surrealist who would go on to be celebrated by subsequent generations of Australian poets. In contemporary verse, the Irish poet Derek Mahon, like Boyle, has acted as both creator and translator: in Raw Material he introduces the world to the Indian poet Gopal Singh, a poet of his own creation.
With Ghostspeaking, however, Boyle emerges as a true heir to Pessoa’s mantle: while Ern Malley and Gopal Singh were one-off creations, Boyle’s eleven new poets add to his already extant other voices. In Apocrypha, he introduced readers to the lost master, William O’Shaunessy. In How does a man who is dead reinvent his body?, Boyle collaborates with MTC Cronin to create the ‘neglected’ twentieth century poet, Thean Morris Caelli. To write of these creations is to accord them the life they deserve; as such I will speak of each of Boyle’s poets as the creator of his or her own body of work.
The notion of retrieval is central to Boyle’s heteronymic verse. Just as Thean Morris Caelli is labelled ‘neglected’, the poets of Ghostspeaking all dwell in obscurity. They are brought to the reader’s attention not simply out of the imagination, but more specifically as Boyle conjures their biographies to emphasise itinerancy, from the shift between poetry and other forms of art-making; such backgrounds mean that each new poet bears an individual status as an ‘outsider’ artist. The first four poets of the collection serve as examples: Ricardo Xavier Bousoño is an Argentine poet who lived in exile in Brazil, Spain and finally Mexico. In an ‘interview’ with the author, Boyle notes that, ‘A recurrent theme of Ricardo’s conversations was his sense of being passed over’. Elena Navronskaya Blanco is an Argentine of Spanish and Russian descent; she tells Boyle that ‘I don’t do interviews of personal revelation…The poems should stand on their own’. Lazlo Thalassa is yet more of a puzzle—‘a Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins’, both poet and poetry constantly shapeshift. A postscript to his biographical note advises that after Boyle had prepared his translations, Thalassa contacted him again, revealing himself as ‘Miguel Todorov’; this addendum does not offer clarification, so much as another layer of uncertainty over a poet ‘whose very existence has been much debated’.
Maria Zafarelli Strega is, after Thalassa, another disappearing act: having published a book in an edition of 100, which Boyle has never been able to find, her only other published works are the poems that strike him in an anthology. When Boyle attempts to find her, or find out her fate, he first encounters a series of dead-ends, and then finally meets Carlotta, who provides him with some detail, and some unpublished fragments of text that appear in print for the first time in translation. As a footnote to this encounter, Boyle writes, ‘I wondered, but it seemed too crazy a thought, could Carlotta be Maria?’. When, later in the volume, further work from Strega appears as a late addendum, Boyle describes a photo of the poet in her youth, but does not tell the reader if this photo resembles Carlotta; her newly received work, however, hints at the possibility as she refers to her own continual transformation: a fragment ends, ‘I fly north again, this time to Mexico, under my fourth name’. The flight is both geographical and personal—her life ends in Mexico and these fragments arrive at the translator’s door in December 2015 as he as ‘about to send the manuscript of Ghostspeaking to the publisher’. Both the reinventions that the writer herself references, and the fact of new work materialising as Boyle prepares his manuscript, suggest a project that is endless. The reinventions of Strega are, of course, the reinventions of Boyle; the ‘new’ work arrives as a new chapter in the effort to record the turns taken in the lives of Boyle’s imagined—and now real—poets.
Each biography is labyrinthine: just as answers seem imminent, the image of the poet we are meeting crumbles before us. Each poet’s identity is revealed as unfixed, informed by factors both personal (Strega leaves home for Uruguay at twenty-two to escape the father ‘and the terror she and her mother knew because of him’) and political (Bousoño leaves Argentina first for Brazil, ‘fearing for his life as the activities of the military and right-wing death squads intensified’). In this way, stories of exile and alienation tell both personal histories and remind the reader of larger sweeps of history in which the act of speech has been, in itself, dangerous.
At the same time, what emerges through the collection, is the character of Boyle himself. As such Ghostspeaking can be read as a hybrid work: an anthology of the voices that reside in Boyle-the-poet’s imagination; a memoir of Boyle-the-translator-of-fictive-poets. Ghostspeaking is a work of a genre as yet unnamed, anticipated by Boyle’s previous book Apocrypha, and perhaps loosely related to the picaresque novel, developed episodically, based around this strange encounter of ‘translation’.
Among the oeuvres presented here, there are many recurrent themes. The first poem of the work offers one of these threads, in the form of political poetry. Bousoño’s ‘House Arrest in São Paulo’ shifts the attention of the reader to the political realities of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, even as it resists politics. Of his escape from the death-squads in Argentina, Bousoño writes, ‘Weird… Gullar escaped Brazil to be safe in Argentina and I escaped Argentina to be safe in Brazil. Back then there were monsters everywhere’. While he states that, ‘I didn’t want to write political poems’ in the interview that follows the poems, this opening poem bears the marks of the biography Boyle has created for him. In exile, Bousoño views São Paulo, and his habitation there, as a coffin. He writes:
They have lodged me in this high-rise hotel,
official guest of a Writers’,
Artists’, Ergo-econemtricians’ Archival
Thought-Fest, downtown São Paulo,
prisoner 25867 in this
bugged lab of babble.
Even in exile, in safety, the poet feels himself the object of surveillance; such surveillance reduces his freedom to the house arrest of the title. He writes:
Surveillance cameras with bovine faces
burn holes in the fake
stability of floorboards.
They have instructed me to climb into my coffin
and not get out
In the ten sections of this poem, this image of the coffin recurs frequently, as does the record of the sky. A kind of madness emerges, until the poet sees himself: ‘He is waving to me/ from the farthest room/ at the end of innumerable corridors:/ the ghost I will become’. The ghost of this poem becomes the ‘Ghostspeakings’ of another sequence by Bousoño, and the title of Boyle’s work as a whole. ‘House Arrest in São Paulo’ recalls the thread of poems written in detention during the twentieth century—a tradition that includes the work of Nazim Hikmet, written in prison, the poems of Yannis Ritsos, written in prison camps, the poems of Miklós Radnóti, written on the forced march that ended in his death. Though Bousoño’s work lacks the brutal circumstances of these poems, and though Bousoño states that he ‘could never sit down and write poems of witness’, the work nevertheless is an act of witness to the constancy of exilic musing.
Coming full circle, the volume closes with the work of Bousoño, in a ‘Final Unpublished Manuscript Given to Translator’. This last work, the long multi-stranded ‘Threads’, returns to ghosts (‘at 4 a.m/ can no longer/ keep the/ ghosts at their/ distance’), returns to confined space and the view of the sky (‘or in a Paris room/ leaving at dawn/ hunched/ in each one’s/ private failure/ against/ a sky/ of endings’), returns to the memory of the beginning of exile (‘I see myself/ aged twenty-two/ walking off the bridge/ into Brazil/ free and alive/ a clean slate’). ‘Threads’ represents formal invention, and the overview of a life of exile and wandering, a culmination of this project as a voice collects his various selves.
The spectre of the political is also haunts the figure of the French-Canadian wanderer Gaston Bousquin. Boyle writes of this poet through the frame of a friendship cultivated over years, noting that Bousquin had said of his native Quebec that he was ‘allergic to the idea of north’, and his wanderings represent his determined move south. First in South America, he mingles with both real and invented poets: Olga Orozco, Osvaldo Lamborghini, Marosa Giorgio and Wilson Bueno appear in his list of acquaintances, alongside Boyle’s own Bousoño. Later, Bousquin appears in Sydney, Australia—Boyle meets him in Glebe; he lives in Cremorne; he works in Penrith and volunteers with a young writers project in Bankstown. The final act of Bousquin’s life brings the reader face to face with the reality of detention again, and this time begs consideration of the ‘crime’ of otherness. Meanwhile, the poems ‘Robert’, ‘Kim Le’ and ‘Ahmed’ speak to the multicultural experience of Sydney. In ‘Ahmed’ the poem’s subject states ‘My parents want me to go to Uni,/ be a doctor or lawyer, join the police force,/ shit like that—/ just normal things like other parents./ So why does everybody hate us?’ Though itinerancy has been such a frequent theme in the lives of the poets Boyle has created, it is Bousquin’s poems and experience that bring the topic of immigration itself into focus.
As the final new poet introduced in Ghostspeaking, ahead of the addenda containing ‘new’ work by poets already encountered, Bousquin’s arrival in Australia actualises the conversation between contemporary Australian poetry and non-Anglophone poetries. In his acknowledgements, Boyle notes:
my fictive poets do…bear traces of various poets and writers. Sometimes it is a trace of a poet’s style, a favoured subject matter or form for writing a poem. Sometimes it is more an attitude towards poetry. Occasionally it is an echo of some part of a poet’s life.
Boyle scatters references to real poets throughout the work, including to some Australian poets and poetry. This move opens space for a conversation about the place of Australian poetry in the world, and world poetry in Australia: while much contemporary Australian verse is written or placed in conversation with the works from the centres of Anglophone poetry—England, Ireland and America—the influence of other traditions can be felt in many quarters.
The references to Australian poetry through this body of work offer an intriguing suggestion that these conversations are not a one-way affair, not simply a matter of dispatches received, but that Australian poetry could itself be influential on the world stage. This suggestion is planted in Boyle’s interview with Bousoño. Discussing the avant-garde poetry of the twentieth century, Boyle records Bousoño’s suggestion that ‘from what I’ve read, Australian poetry didn’t enter the 20th Century till the 1970s with Forbes and Tranter’. Boyle then notes, ‘I wanted to protest that this was unfair to poets like Webb, Slessor and Brennan but I didn’t want to interrupt the forward rush of his ideas. In any case, in a way he was right’. While, in comparison to Vallejo whose Trilce appeared in 1922, Bousoño views this arrival of the ‘20th Century’ a late-coming, this suggestion also points to the flourishing of poetry over the past several decades. The late John Forbes is called out again, in the work of Lazlo Thalassa. In ‘Of Fate and Other Inconveniences’, Thalassa writes:
I knew she was a white Russian since
she was wearing a white bikini. In a corner of
the poolside bar the ghost of John Forbes
downs a black Russian, glancing nostalgically
at French sylphs swathed in the flimsiest snippets
of international news.
This second reference to Forbes tantalises; meanwhile, there is a suggestion elsewhere that Boyle is on the lookout for such opportunities to connect Australia with this poetry he is conjuring from elsewhere. When presenting the work of Federico Silva, Boyle notes that he was ‘taken aback by the mention of grevillea and fruit bats, which I thought existed only in Australia’; while this is solved immediately by his notice that ‘grevillea is also endemic to New Caledonia from where an uncle had brought back cuttings, just as he had brought a menagerie of fruit bats from Greece where they also live’. Here Boyle indicates that he is not just seeking to look outside Anglophone poetic traditions for his inspiration and creation, but that he also wishes create a dialogue between the traditions out of which he conjures these poets, and the tradition in which he writes.
Boyle’s poets, likewise, are always looking elsewhere. They often rove back to lost homelands (Antioneta Villanueva flies over her native Havana), or the memories from their travels (Bousquin records the temporary occasion of a visit to the apartment of the real Olga Orocozo in Buenos Aires); otherwise they journey in the imagination, as when Bousoño writes of ‘An Ordinary Day in Uzbekistan’. Such journeys are part of the quest for reinvention these poets share, as is made most clear in the work of Ernesto Ray. A Puerto Rican poet and musician, once a teenager haunting the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, Ray turns his back on a burgeoning musical career, and becomes an English teacher in China, later traveling to India, Nepal, Thailand and Japan. This experience is, for the poet, a ‘rite of passage’. Giving up on fame, he becomes a student of Buddhism; when, living again in New York, a crisis arrives as his wife falls ill, it is spiritual work that he seeks: the new poems he writes come in the form of spells. In his unfinished memoir, Ray seeks to link his own work with poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Arthur Rimbaud—poets who, he writes, are not ‘after an audience’. Ray’s spells link to an ancient tradition of written charms; these poems range from ‘Arnica Artemisia’, with its title linking two medicinal plant types, to ‘My Lover’s Shoes (This Morning)’, in which Ray describes these shoes noting that:
although this dark world grabs at you
you have stepped
onto the soles of an altered shining
that these simple swirls of colour may
spiral up your legs into your inmost
core of being.
Here, instead of medicinal herbs long used to offer relief to pain, it is the ‘sandals of many names and a single/ plastic loop’ that carry the charm to the body of the charmed.
While for Ray the magical thinking of poetry emerges after he has spent time in Asia, for other poets collected here, a concern with magic is always present. The note of the ecstatic, of the possible correspondence with the dead, is a vital part of the poems that Boyle writes. Maria Zafarelli Strega also writes with magical intent. Her poem ‘Spells’ instructs the reader to ‘Knot this dream onto your nightmare./ Let your handkerchief hold the three teeth/ stolen from the drowned girl’s face’, while her poem ‘The Sandpits of Eden’ poses metaphysical questions: ‘Do you hear me, Jonah?’; ‘Am I Jonah already?’; ‘Am I the great polar lake in its ring of ice or the whale that dreams it?’. The Spanish poet Antonio Almeida writes in his memoir of mystical experiences going back to his childhood; before the first world war the poet, a child, acts as Rilke’s assistant on the famed poet’s visit to his city. Here, at the age of thirteen, Almeida experiences a vision that confirms his vocation as a poet. This mysticism is present in his verse as well, as when in ‘Lying Under a Bee-Swarm’ he writes:
What these whisper-gods have whispered
holds the inflection of an earth-language
that burrows down into you
as into the soil that is also you.
Access to earth-language and the language of the gods is, through the invention of this chorus, is the ongoing quest for Boyle and his heteronyms.
These collected Ghostspeakings are the snatches overhead from such ‘whisper-gods’. Though the work frequently seems like a game, it is a deadly serious one: the book is never a parody. As the late writings of his Maria Zafarelli Strega writes many times and Boyle translates once, ‘Cada palanga abre un cadáver’, or ‘every word opens a corpse.’ Boyle opens the corpse and the corpus alike in these poems. Boyle’s book is a book of abundance; in every poem, every biography, every vignette the reader senses more identities as yet unemerged. Ghostspeaking is a kaleidoscope of experience.