“Safe Passage” by Sue Boyle reviewed by Jonathan Steffen

Post image for “Safe Passage” by Sue Boyle reviewed by Jonathan Steffen

Older Thoughts


Safe Passage
Sue Boyle, Oversteps Books, 2015

In terms of the means of its production, poetry is one of the most economical of art forms. All you need is pen and paper. You always can borrow a pen if you don’t have one to hand and, if you have no paper either, write on a paper napkin or the back of an envelope. You can write the words on your wrist, or (like Irina Georgiyevna Ratushinskaya in prison) on a bar of soap. You can tap them out in digital form, on a computer, tablet or smartphone, or record them on any digital device. Or you can simply commit them to memory, and not bother to formally notate them in any way. They can still be passed on. The poetry is still poetry.

The extraordinarily modest prerequisites for the creation of poetry might seem at odds with the medium’s durability. Surely palaces and temples, theatres and opera houses, statues and paintings should outlast a few hastily scribbled and memorised lines. And yet, as we know from Shelley’s Ozymandias, this is not always the case. Words, mere organised sounds, mere arbitrary signifiers, can have a permanence that often outlives the most sumptuous and ambitious physical expressions of the creative impulse.

The interplay between durability and transience, between continuity and change, between the present and the past, is the prevailing theme of Sue Boyle’s excellent poetry collection Safe Passage.

Erudite and articulate, restless and curious, Boyle’s imagination wanders through the streets of London, Paris and Rome, raising ghosts at its passage.

Even in a contemporary leisure centre – in “A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning” – the chorus from Greek tragedy appears in the women’s changing room, incarnated in the form of the older women who observe “The honey-coloured girl” who is “absorbed in making her body more beautiful”: “We twelve are the chorus: / we know what happens next.”

One does not even need to travel to art galleries and museums, or even to crematoria and cemeteries, to learn these painful, universal lessons, then. Eurydice can appear anywhere – as she does in the poem “Pavarotti at the Grosvenor Hotel.” “It was the god in him, to be what he did – / it was his genius … She watched him eat / and knew he was the fire at the heart / of life. He cut the comb, spread it, oozing honey, / on warm bread and asked her name. / Eurydice, she said.”

Perhaps not since Robert Graves has a contemporary poet demonstrated such an intimate and easy relationship with the classical world. Yet for all their learning, Sue Boyle’s poems are highly accessible, and they are not always dependent on historical ruminations for their power. The history of ordinary people’s lives provides sufficiently giddying perspectives:

Lemons like bright round lamps will gleam
still in their glossy mantle of winter leaves.
The weather contraption will still register
each shift of wind, each change of temperature.
The pond between the clumps of Canary palms
will have this same lazy traffic of golden carp
and ring-necked parakeets
will be swooping and screeching among the trees
the same, but the painted bench
there, by the steps up to the fountain,
where he is reading La Stampa now in the winter sun
will be empty. He will have gone.
And I will be the woman whom he loved.

The speaker of the poem is burdened by foreknowledge: the love she feels is accompanied by a crushing weight of destiny. This awareness of what is to come lends a tragic grandeur to the ordinary souls of this collection who are not Greek goddesses. And the sensibility from which these poems spring has its roots in something that predates even the panoply of Ancient Greek religion:

Colour is a lesser thing than light:
no bird’s gaudy can compete with the white
of swans. Absorbed in their own loveliness
they glide as if they knew a world more fine
than this, their heads inclined
not in the search for food, but in a kind
of graceful prayer. Those who paint angels choose
to wing them like swans as if to prove
how close and familiar heaven is
but here is an older thought –
like white swans flying into falling snow
our dead will abandon us; their wingbeats grow
fainter, then vanish. They will become
part of the sky’s thick silence and be gone.

Is this a consolation, or a desolation, to borrow the terminology of Ignatian spirituality? Perhaps it is both; for if our dead will abandon us but become part of the sky’s thick silence, will they not remain with us in some strange way, some obstinate, inaccessible but omnipresent manner that is as eternally visible as the sky itself?

These modern metaphysical speculations in verse are of the highest order. We hope that Sue Boyle will spend many more years sifting through the bric-à-brac shops of the heart and reflecting in verse on what she discovers there.

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Photo of Italian statue ©Jonathan Steffen

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