Charles Boyle writes in telling detail about place, most recently fitting photographs to tales of Shepherd’s Bush in Days and Nights in W12 (published last year, under the pseudonym Jack Robinson). He won a Cholmondeley award in 1981 and published his second collection House of Cards the following year; it was praised by Michael Hulse for “some splendid rhythms, an inventive and potentially metaphysical angle to his reality, and a very satisfying way of open-ending his poems in several directions at once”.Here Boyle conjures two locations, the slash between them connoting the border that separates Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real in Portugal. This places an emphasis on the process of crossing; the slash stands not only for the river Guadiana, and the ferry plying it, but also for an oscillation between two points, like “the stranger / pacing the deck between stern and bows / and back again, and back again”. The poem enacts an uneasy departure, a “goodbye without ever / really meaning it: between bouts of love”.Somewhere between a love poem and a travel poem, then, Boyle’s meditation on in-betweenness, on giving oneself “time enough / to learn what you do”, has a self-correcting impulse. Intrigued by the workings of a “mind continually on the qui vive”, Nicholas Lezard admires Boyle’s voice as “unpretentious yet . . . lyrical; linguistically precise and emotionally evasive, often at the same time”. He describes Boyle’s poems as “collisions between the quotidian and the unhinged that could themselves serve as the opening scenes of extraordinary films”. In “Ayamonte/Vila Real”, Boyle pans across the river scene, building apprehension rather than comprehension, with his soundtrack of “the final, untranslatable syllables / of the taxi-driver cursing”, shoppers comparing purchases they could not afford “on their own side”, and “daunting gulls” circling overhead. Here, one finds the time to “properly [take] account” of where one has been and where one is headed.
Who has not seen the colours
on the last evening strangely intensified
and heard the final, untranslatable syllables
of the taxi-driver cursing the cyclist?
Then light a cigarette: there’ll be time enough
to learn what you do, without ever learning
enough to do right; nor can you return
through the labyrinth – what child’s play it seems now! –
regathering the thread to the point
at which it simply might never have been needed.
But sometimes you say goodbye without ever
really meaning it: between bouts of love, even in the gap
between two words that are themselves harmless
as wooden fence posts driven in
on either side of an invisible dotted line.
Here, at least there is a river
to be crossed in a ferry whose tickets may be paid for
in either currency. Women
gather in the saloon, comparing their purchases
of butter, say, or a roll of imported cloth
that on their own side is heavily taxed;
the captain fingers his worry-beads, and the stranger
pacing the deck between stern and bows
and back again, and back again, at last
looks up to the daunting gulls and wishes only
he had bread to scatter . . .
than waking in trains to find you have already left
without having properly taken account
of the last village, village street and weathercock
that, even as you watch, begins to turn.
CHARLES BOYLE (1982)
Published: 2 October 2012, in TLS-The Times Literary Supplement