Museum of Space by Peter Boyle. University of Queensland Press, A$22.95.
Reviewed by Lauren Sillery
Museums are places of open spaces, made of stark, high ceilings and hard floors that send echoes racing around the rooms. Purposely empty of excess furniture and home to an enforced hush, museums are ideally suited for a specific purpose: observation. Not an observation of physical engagement, of the tactile sensations of running your hands across surfaces, but a removed scrutiny, where the observer has to stand away and squint. With few exceptions, one goes to a museum with the aim of gazing at something beautiful, not for holding it in one's hands. With this sentiment in mind, Australian poet Peter Boyle's Museum of Space could not have been more accurately named. The collection has moments of intense beauty and clever description, but it seems to exude an air of separation. These poems do not send messages with the ringing of bells or waving of arms, but rather sit quietly in their corners and allow people to come and gaze upon them.
This calmness and almost meekness in Boyle's poetry are built into his language, in the actual selection of words with the work. For example, in the first and title poem of the collection, “Museum of Space,” Boyle's verbs include “glide,” “become,” “watching,” “vanished,” “looked,” “be,” and “used”--and this only in the first stanza. In none of these phrases is a strong action undertaken or a forceful motion begun. Items and people are acted upon or, when they do act, act in passive ways, as when sitting perfectly still and observing the outside world. Boyle achieves the intended effect, creating a poetry of calmness and tranquility as opposed to something more strident. He does, indeed, make museum pieces of his works: they are lovely and well-made, but placed behind glass.
This gentle, detached language at first made me view the poems of Museum of Space as vague and indecisive. The poetry seemed to shy away from making a stand or a definitive statement. As I read, however, I realized that what I had thought of as wavering between ideas was actually a focus on balance. One of the crucial themes expressed in Museum of Space is equilibrium between opposing ideas. Thus, the answer to the question “Why are water and sand always used to measure time passing?” is that “they must then be one substance--what never gets dry, what never gets wet.” Naturally, Boyle's poetry seems ambiguous, for if the world is a mix of extremes, a poet would be ignoring something important to select only one. Boyle further develops his idea of balance in “The Book of Questions--Reading Edmond Jabès” when he writes, “you construct the fragment s/ into beautiful wholes and at the same time splice jagged edges of noise into your soundscapes. For the beautiful needs the ugly to walk forward.”
This idea of balance between contrasting ideas is evident in more than the content of Museum of Space; it also appears in the style. His poems seem to place phrases that border upon cliché adjacent to lines that border upon genius. Boyle's reliance on overused ideas or phrasing is all the more painful because he is obviously capable of a much more powerful and individual means of expression. Phrases like “the vast tide of now” and “fountain of forgetting” pepper his poetry, as do strange insertions of abstractions, as when he describes “patient” horses “munching on tomorrow.” Instead of seizing hold of thoughts and explaining or implying truths about them, these phrases tend to oversimplify abstractions. The oddity is that Boyle can, indeed, verbalize ideas on these subjects, such as when he describes the problem of ownership by asking “How many names are tied to the one note of music?” His subsequent lapses into clichéd or limited descriptions become more frustrating when all the reader wants to read is the well-turned insight that Boyle evidenced in other places throughout his work.
Given its tendency towards a detached style, Museum of Space risks putting off its reader, of pushing him or her so far away that the book no longer becomes interesting. Yet the collection overall reads engagingly, with enough cleverness and change that the contents of each new poem remain unexpected. One way in which Boyle inserts variation into his collection is in his myriad changes in form and style. Some poems are free verse, while others are prose poems; some are broken into a more structured pattern, and others are more fragmented or stream-of-consciousness; some convey a narrative, and others detail a single conversation. Boyle's efforts to present new formats offer the reader different perspectives on the themes that run throughout the collection. For example, Boyle treats the theme of isolation differently in a poem that asks questions, such as “Window With Reflections,” in which the speaker asks “Who is this man / so strangely lost? / How much must he gather / to find his way to zero?,” than in a piece that focuses on sitting back and describing a person, as in “The Philosopher of Leopards,” of whom “the sadness of a hand that has given up on gesturing / could best approximate her texts.” Alternately, the speakers directly address isolation and the consequences it entails or approach it from a more oblique angle.
Boyle writes most effectively when he breaks from the standard “slightly esoteric free verse poem with artistic line breaks” formula. For example, the poem “Parable of the Two Boxes” comprises a simple back-and-forth, question-and-answer conversation between two unknown speakers. The simplicity of the questions allows Boyle to make smart, concise, and exceedingly effective statements, as when the questioner asks, “Do you see that or hear that?” and the listener replies “Seeing is hearing when things are small enough.” Pieces in which Boyle relates a specific story or event, as opposed to a more obscure happenstance, are also effective in their delivery. “Christ and the Apostles Survey Suburbia” provides a concrete picture of Christ and his twelve loyal followers asking questions door-to-door to “check . . . for the presence of fresh corpses suitable for revival.” The speaker himself “had a question . . . about the spiked hands / but was too nervous to ask it.” The peculiarity of the situation is more approachable due to its grounding in such an annoying real-life occurrence. As a whole, Boyle's work benefits when he focuses on the concrete, or at least on having a concrete reference from which to view the abstract.
In Museum of Space, Boyle states that, somehow, poetry, “among so many images, so many fictions, so many interweavings, so many phrases selected for their delicate balance between too much and too little, between impact and otherness, between leading towards the beautiful and reassuring with the known,” manages to “[fling] open the trance of its own beauty.” This collection of poems seeks for balance and the beauty inherent within it, but shows its beauty through a distant shining, not through a flinging open of words or ideas.