Frances Boyle’s This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019)

In 2015 I reviewed Frances Boyle’s 2014 debut Light-Carved Passages. One line stated that “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.” In her second release, Boyle has worked harder on form and her ear is often in fine shape, yet there are still issues with abstracting cliches and a sometimes nebulous division of segments. I truly believe that a huge part of the problem with many volumes of poems in this literary climate is that they are too lengthy (my own books included!). The reason is that a standardized format of around 80 pages means that poets have no choice but to submit a manuscript that long or longer if they want it to be considered for publication. O for presses that could put out tiny, perfect-bound volumes featuring one sequence of pieces or much more carefully honed and selected poems. Way too much is padding or strain or the unnecessary. Too much that isn’t about poetry is weakening our poetry in this country.

If Boyle had been able to only pick pieces that truly ring and not stick an out of place sequence like “All the Dorothys” in the middle of more personal and nature poems (or possibly only release THIS sequence as a chapbook instead) then the entire book would have been stronger. Poets often seem to fall into the singular, individual poem kind of poet (like Elizabeth Bishop say) or the tone or mood type of sequential poet ( T.S. Eliot for the most part) and Boyle is one of the latter. Although most of the pieces are separate lyrics, Boyle’s strengths lie in accretion, in building up a landscape of shadowy figures, including parents, a spouse, daughters and her dog, but mainly in the patrician and haunting trees, as well as in the moody omnipresence of clouds, fog, sparrows and other birds, fallen fruit, wet grass. Boyle tends towards old-fashioned (one might say), rather solemn rhythms but I like a lot of them, such as: “this learning/is not rote, but ringed. A year, a sleep,/another year, and my core might ripen,/by slow degrees, in somnolence” (Tutelage) or the richly alliterative “Warmth rises as steam, mingles/with the mist./Morning, not yet cracked, glass/intact, transparent view” (Morning, Unbroken).

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Boyle is most potent as a poet when she simply limns, describes. In the somewhat awkward but still resonant prosy piece “Gleanings,” Boyle turns Annie Dillard with a crisp description of bird feeding as the snow descends, concluding “I’ve been waiting for reflections to flood the pond with green,/watching hollowing happen,” a consonantal singing that elevates the potentially simplistic to the sonorous and even spiritual (though why is the article omitted before so many nouns such as “Squirrel traverses” rather than “a/the squirrel”?) When, conversely, she slips into the tired personification of shrubs with “brave faces” looking at the waves and wind as they “gossip” or worse, trees as once again having “arms” (!?!?), Boyle slips from clear-eyed and eared depiction into maudlin romanticism that does nothing to sharpen either poem or vista. Boyle can use form admirably, from the anaphoric prose poem “Drag a Long Black Trail Across the Light” where the repeated word “drag” imitates its action, to the mesmerizing sonnet “Old Acquaintance” with its concluding couplet: “My ghost sits small beside me, is it right/that what she whispers ricochets through night?” but she chooses more often to write in random stanzas that offer little sense to my sight. The titular poem with its Roethkian energies, drawn from Ashbery’s Some Trees, would have been so much more potent with a solid form or even more carefully structured stanzas. I remember Di Brandt telling me years ago: “When you start your poem you are giving your reader directions about what it’s going to look like structurally.” If the stanzas veer from two to five to three to six lines without a clear conceptualization of why then it’s simply a distraction without adding to the content.

In terms of design, I do appreciate the flourishes of roots in the corners of each page, but think the recurrence of the lady on the cover as a section divider is overdone. Then again, the division into four parts is rather besides the point here. Another little dream of mine: make it all smaller so we have the freedom to truly choose which pieces deserve to be included and not, as the Acknowledgments page acknowledges, feel compelled to turn a “grab bag” into a whole book. We want to find the strong poems. We want to remember them.

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