Ghostspeaking by Peter Boyle, Vagabond Press (2016) was launched by Luke Fischer at Gleebooks, Sydney on the evening of Friday 23 September 2016.
It is a great honour and joy to have the task of launching Peter Boyle’s extraordinary new book Ghostspeaking. At the outset, I’d like to thank Peter for this invitation.
Launching this book also places me in an impossible situation. It is difficult enough to shed light on a new collection by a single poet in a ten-minute speech. In the present case, the collection is a 370 page anthology, which includes selections from eleven poets and writers. Moreover, all of them are Peter Boyle and none of them is Peter Boyle.
With the publication of Ghostspeaking, Peter appears to me as an Australian poet whose work is unparalleled in its imaginative range and depth.
Ghostspeaking is in certain respects a sequel to Peter’s groundbreaking and multi-award winning Apocrypha (Vagabond, 2009; second edition, 2016), which comprises a vast array of fictive ancient texts presented as translations by the late classicist William O’Shaunessy, with Peter Boyle as their editor. Ghostspeaking collects works by eleven ‘heteronymous’ poets and writers, mostly born in the twentieth century, in Latin America, Spain, France, and Canada. Peter Boyle appears in the book as their translator. With its multiple personas and explorations of questions of identity, selfhood and otherness, Ghostspeaking makes a major contribution to the tradition of heteronymic poetry, of which Fernando Pessoa is the most well-known representative.
Ghostspeaking is a multi-genre and genre-defying book. David Brooks aptly describes it as ‘somewhere between a brief, succulent anthology of the best twentieth century poetry and a rare contemporary novel …’. It contains letters, interviews, biographical notes, memoirs, prose poems, free verse, as well as some song lyrics by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ernesto Ray, who achieved fame early in his life, but later sought anonymity and turned to poetry. There are numerous, outstanding prose poems, a genre-defying genre, and the style of the mysterious author known as ‘The Montaigne Poet’ is a peculiar admixture of prose poetry and essay form. There are the splendid, experimental memoirs of Cuban-born concert violinist and poet, Antonieta Villanueva, titled ‘I am not going to write my memoirs’. In short, Ghostspeaking both mixes genres and redefines individual genres. Nevertheless, in its linguistic brilliance and imaginative intensity it is best described as a work of poetry.
The book’s complex intertwinements of fictional biographies, autobiographic material from Peter’s life, actual historical events, and the influence of various poetic traditions on each fictive poet, calls for the critical attention of many scholars. Ghostspeaking blurs, and invites the reader to reconceive, distinctions between fiction and reality, invention and fact, imagination and memory, literature and history. I’ll offer a few examples.
The poet Antonio Almeida, born in Ronda, Spain in 1899, is asked at the age of thirteen to be a guide for a visiting poet, who we learn is Rilke. Almeida has a speech impediment in his childhood and only finds his poetic voice late in life. Nevertheless, magical things happen during his time with Rilke, which, I think, must have influenced his later poetry. Almeida’s poem ‘The Time of Weeping’ in its tone and imagery bears strong resemblances to certain poems in Rilke’s early major works The Book of Hours and The Book of Images.
On a train trip, shortly before his twenty-third birthday, Almeida discovers that one person in his compartment is the poet Antonio Machado, and, several years later when he buys the book Nuevas Canciones, he realises that he had witnessed the scene described in Machado’s poem ‘Iris de la Noche’ (‘Rainbow at Night’).
Entanglements of the fictional and the autobiographical are evident in the memoirs of Villanueva. Peter, in the guise of translator, draws connections between Villanueva’s biography and his own writing:
What particularly drew me to her work, besides the flair in her style and a certain haunted quality, was the series of coincidences between our lives. Both of us contracted polio in early childhood – Antonieta just after her third birthday, myself just before …
Peter has no doubt drawn on his own life experiences in writing Villanueva’s emotionally powerful memoirs.
While none of the poets in Ghostspeaking is born in Australia, the Quebec-born Gaston Bousquin spends periods of his life in Sydney, and there are scattered references to Australian poetry. Those familiar with recent debates and polemics around the value of obscurity will appreciate Ernesto Ray’s standpoint. In the preface to his posthumously published collection A Cloak for Pauline, in which he aims to write poems that have the efficacy of healing spells, he states:
… what can be understood immediately, is incapable of casting the deep resonances that make magic happen … Where to start if I am to weave spells? Not with the old linear, one-dimensional poetry. Neither transparency nor wilful language games. I need new alignments.
The fictive poets collected in Ghostspeaking present a broad spectrum of difficulty. Readers who prefer more accessible, narrative writing will love the elegant prose and Proust-like evocations of childhood memories in the ‘Excerpts from the Unfinished Memoirs Du Côté de Vercinegetorix’ by the French poet Federico Silva. Readers with a sympathy for surrealism will love the dense, symbolic worlds of Elena Navronskaya Blanco’s sequence of (mostly) prose poems titled An Exquisite Calendar for the Duke of Madness.
In spite of the astonishing diversity there are many threads that run through this book. One unifying element appears to be Peter’s interest in dismantling borders of all kinds, borders between the personal and the political, the self and others, the human and the natural, waking consciousness and dreams, life and death, the physical and the metaphysical. His poetry articulates an expanded awareness of ourselves and the world.
Here is an example of an opposition to borders, with a satirical, political resonance, from Blanco’s An Exquisite Calendar for the Duke of Madness:
They were racing to fortify the borders though no one knew what to put in, what to leave out. Should this tree be in or out? This river, this tangled passionfruit vine? Just as unclear was where to place the barriers of time – only what belonged to last year or twenty years back or a hundred? Outside the borders would be everything we would have to abandon and agree to call “enemy”…
If only our politicians and the majority of citizens would learn from Elena Blanco.
In various places Ghostspeaking addresses the ecological crisis and suggests a deep continuity between the human and the other-than-human. One of my favourites passages is from the ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ of Federico Silva:
More memories of Tours. A primary school outing: a fancy dress party by a lake, for the headmistress of the school was an enthusiast for the imaginary participation in the lives of animals. Trapped inside the suit of a cat, the mask pulled down so my altered eyes alone look out. As my breathing tightens, the horror that I would never come back from some place entirely outside the human.
Here an almost shamanic power is attributed to the imagination’s capacity to transport us into the animal other.
There are many evocations of dreams in Ghostspeaking and even when the poems are not directly thematizing dreams, their images often resemble dreamscapes more than physical settings or compress physical space and psychological space into one another. The poem ‘Of Books and Silence’ by The Montaigne Poet explicitly draws a connection between the source of writing and dreams. It opens as follows:
He is guiding me,
a man in a red fez,
beside what seems to be a line of bookcases
but what he holds in his hand is a long curved oar
with which he moves our flat-bottomed skiff forward
between the windows and spires, the winding façades of the
Yes, he says,
all the books of the earth are here,
including those that to you
are not yet written.
Your books are here too somewhere
though we have not come for them.
I want most of all for you to feel this place,
to have the sense that it is here
on the earth’s other side.
When you wake
you will remember the feel of the water under you,
the freshness of the air
in this moment of always beginning
and these delicately tinted mirrors of glass that are books …
Peter is more of a Surrealist than an Imagist. His startling metaphors, which knit together seemingly incongruous elements, ask the reader to make imaginative leaps and are an essential aspect of the semantic density of his writing. For example, the first stanza of Robert Berechit’s sequence of poems ‘Love Letters from a Vanquished City’ includes these lines: ‘In the supreme innocence of evil / life frolics / juggling the skulls of the dead’.
While resembling dreams, Peter’s poetry is grounded in deeply-felt existential concerns and in a search for meaning and coherence. Peter is awake in his dreams, the lucid dreamer conducting an orchestra of resonant symbols. The symbols are not directing themselves. This poetry is not automatic writing but deftly crafted language.
Another expansive quality is evident in what could be called an interest in the cosmic or the universal. Peter is sympathetic to the idea of a Poetry of the universe, which poems can tap into and embody. Consider this passage by Villanueva, who was a concert violinist before an accident that precipitated her turn to writing:
Where does music go when it ceases to be channelled through you? My hands no longer want to touch violins or strike the keyboard of a piano. There is a rhythm in speech, in words themselves I want to unleash. And, even more, there is a rhythm in the world itself as it circulates around me, but not specifically around me – around itself, around people, birds, trees, like the wind realigning the leaves on a path by the pond in the Jardin du Luxembourg …
Many ghosts, apparitions and spiritual presences are conjured in Ghostspeaking. While these often reflect the psychological states of the speakers—their grief, sense of loss, and mourning for those who have died—there is also a genuine openness to the visionary and the spiritual.
The collection is pervaded by a concern for mortality, suffering, illness and death. Yet, its final tone is not bleak. Here is Ernesto Ray’s poem-spell ‘My Lover’s Shoes (This Morning)’ for his partner Pauline, who is ill with cancer:
flip flops thongs jandals
sandal of many names and a single
orange they open
a platform of butterflies and spirals
fivefold petals brushed in white
sun’s intense childhood radiance
on a winter floor
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
others have spoken of the “shoes of wandering”
for this morning, my love, you have chosen
dazzling splotches of summer
bearing the grace of all you were,
of all you are
Peter’s poetry aims to affirm life and existence in a deep awareness that transcends the opposition of pain and joy. This is dramatically encapsulated by Villanueva when she writes: ‘… what lies the other side of the scream? … Even now the best I have ever found to say is that the other side of the scream is magic, the silent inexplicable unfolding of magic’.
Not one of the poets in Ghostspeaking is ‘typically Australian’. Reflecting Peter’s immense knowledge of Spanish, Latin-American, and French poetry, the works of these fictive writers expand the sensibility and imaginative range of poetry in English as though they were, in fact, translations. However, in this instance there is no problem of translation and the foreign has found itself entirely at home in English.
My heartfelt congratulations to Peter on this astounding achievement. I’m delighted to declare Ghostspeaking launched.
Luke Fischer’s books include the poetry collection Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the forthcoming poetry collection A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017).
For details on how to obtain a copy of Ghostspeaking by Peter Boyle go to: http://vagabondpress.net/products/peter-boyle-ghostspeaking