Frances Boyle’s first trade book, Light-carved Passages, is a collection of lyrically domestic hauntings that hovers on the edge of being well-crafted, and on the cusp of the rhythmically-memorable. As with any of my blog reviews, honest criticism is never designed to wound or silence, but to attend to what I feel are fixable flaws in otherwise high-potential work. Rarely will I waste my time on noting weaknesses in a book that doesn’t pass muster at all or for poems that don’t present essential promise.
This proviso – because while there are many pieces that stir in Boyle’s book, loosely divided into five somewhat nebulous sections (in terms of clear thematic intent), there are certain marked slips in form, metaphor, diction and the use of abstractions, that made this reader desire a tightening and strengthening process through which these pieces could shine more sharply in their sensory, emotive beauty.
I sensed the ghost of a feminine Eliotian Prufrock throughout this collection, an anxious character who wishes to yield to the somatic and wild but who is also semi-quelled by her elegiac past, her spouse’s moods, her children’s mercurial natures, and possibly a certain innate timorousness. The initial piece to really catch the ear is “The Power of Naming,” one of several poems about poet Gwendolyn McEwen, an obvious influence on Boyle. What sings: the solid form (three stanzas, eight lines each), the second person narrative movement from McEwen to the speaker to a fusion of them both in their congruencies and distinctions, and lovely, striking details like “the pale-blue thrift store scarf” along with mystical lines such as “conjured fires to beat back the dark.”
Other poems that stand out are “Montreal” for its perfectly timed and nearly rhymed allusions to Godot/Expos/Cointreau, along with the metaphor of breath being a pressed flower, “After the Funeral” for its erratically emotional form and tender memory of her father’s “trickster” singing, the ghazal feel of “Over my head”, another McEwen piece called “Shadow Seeker” in which Boyle responds to the poet’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” “Moon Made” with its lilting nursery rhyme cadences (“what ache/in that shine? What weight in that brine/that giving over, giving in?”), “Longing” for its ghost fish, and “Urban Lake” with its oddly satisfying, and aurally resonant, image of goldfish as “cut carrot curls/swirling/behind curved glass.” Or how about taut lines like: “Pods, their tough nodules/inside gritty envelopes, aloft on slim, stiff stems.” Or words such as “whickle.” Or verbs like “shadows faltering.” Overall, individual pieces stand out less and the general tenor of the collection rises to the surface as a sweetly consistent melancholy, the lily-fragrance of loss and longing.
Boyle’s vision could veer more powerfully towards a potent melding of such fierce poets as Karen Solie and Anne Compton if certain poems only underwent a more stringent editing process though. Cliches need expunging like “red-rimmed”, “keening wind,” “faint rustle,” “bad bargain,” “fighting down panic,” “silky water,” “mumbles prayers,” “heart hurt” and so on. Poetry always needs to fight for fresh expressiveness. Verbs also require tightening to avoid “do nothing” constructions such as “reach up” or “stands out” or vaguely confusing ones as “leap” when applied to “birds in hedges” or “finds its way” when attached to a truck driving in rain. Mixed metaphors can also be examined for effectiveness. For instance, “knuckles of rough deadfall” are said to “clutch” and someone impossibly “grips” a “sheen.” Some stanzas additionally feature an inconsistency of syntax as in “the quench of seedling light/along passage grave’s sunpath.”
Taken singly, these slips seem minor, but collectively, they mar an otherwise promising voicing, never crippling it, but still hobbling this reader’s reception of both craft and content. Boyle’s subsequent book will undoubtedly strive to polish the shinings of “Light-carved Passages” so that her poems ring a more exquisitely reverberant knell.