Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness by Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press) recently won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Poetry judges’ comments (from the NSWPLA website)
Enfolded in the wings of a great darkness is an extraordinary book-length poem by poet and translator Peter Boyle. The work is a sustained study of life and death, and all that goes on in between. Written during the terminal illness of his partner, Deborah Bird Rose, the book traverses joy and grief in all their shades of dark and light.
Boyle explodes the physical and spiritual world around him as he is confronted with the end of life in the one he loves. In this deeply affecting work, he channels the pain and wonder of what it means to live and to be human in a transient world. The form of the long poem is successfully ekes out each word creating a ‘celebratory emptiness’ that throbs with all its possibilities.
Enfolded in the wings of a great darkness is powerfully transformative in both form and spirit. In reading this work, one finds that ‘in distant spaces of night/ my heart is broken and softly / pounded back into place’, lines that exemplify what we hope for in the best poetry.
Guest reviewer Craig Lawn’s personal musings on Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness
I was positively stunned by Peter Boyle’s previous book of poetry, Ghostspeaking, and so looked forward to his new work.
(Ghostspeaking won the Kenneth Slessor Award for Poetry in the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards)
Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness begins with some staccato musings marked by asterisks, sprinkled with touches of “wonderful” – snippets of insight and sharp experiences of living with death.
Random thoughts and poems spar with each other for attention. There are moments of unveiling, uplifting brilliance.
Judith Beveridge states on the back cover that the book is “a unique and important achievement in Australian poetry. It breaks new ground not only for the author, but also for the canon at large.”
The bottom of page 36 is significant. Peter Boyle (and I) seem to reach a realisation.
“I felt at that point understood/ I understood/ I understood/ my inability to understand.” Perhaps this is like the book of Proverbs – a seemingly random collection of hints, winks, thoughts, feelings, wisdom and insight, in this case bound together by Peter’s personal journey through the valley of the shadow of death with his partner.
I keep going, not necessarily comprehending more of what he is saying, but perhaps understanding more. From page 29 to 47 it is hard to decipher, but from his “wide veranda, daybreak” I start to see “love that shifts under our fingers… The burnt-down candles… Outside/ a whispering crowd of leaves/ have fallen into the pool- / shall I dive in to save them? … This methodical probing of uncertainty… Autumnal… an apocalypse… out where it ends… at the end of the twisted valley… It is the clear/ cold sun…the last poem leaves its trace… an emptiness mark/ a blank space… tilted/ into winter…”
I kept reading – slowly, patiently.
Perhaps this deeply personal, sometimes incoherent but sometimes brilliant passage of words closely mirrors his deep and painful experiences. The poems together become the language of his experience, and my feelings are perhaps echoes of his unfolding experience. By page 36, “As I unfold/ the pages of/ the dream book/ more and more/ diagrams open out.” The words become more coherent albeit still written in a deeply personal meta-language.
On pages 42 and 43 I truly sense “ – The sea is moving in/ – Where?/ -Into the empty room…it arrives without warning/ it goes/ without saying….to utter your last words/ but they would be/ words as the simplest residue/ of a thought/ of words as the smallest/ fragments of a sound, a/ barely audible breath/ surrendered…”
And by page 48 a rhythm appears…”if light/ the sun’s light/ its bright dependable/ presence among us/ moving into our rooms/ brushing our bodies as we wake/ altering nothing/ (so it seems) yet/ subtly changing everything/ arriving and retreating/ beyond all interventions/ indefinably here/ is the closest / we will ever have/ to a metaphor/ for being dead…we will glow/ among our objects/ and our traces/ unspoken irreplaceable/ the underworld’s/ almost undetectable/ shimmer…”
Just as Peter’s understanding grew as he walked with his partner, both living with her cancer, so does his writing and my revelation. A few highlighted words become pages of pages of light and meaning. I want to write out again the sequence of poems from page 50 to 78, to write and feel them as I think them then form them, but this is not practical. You will just have to read them yourself!
And in a single sitting I read the book a second time, and a third time. I settle into the whole experience and the scales fall from my eyes, my mind and my heart. The preface “for Debbie” becomes so poignant – a gift offering for her last year. On the first page of poetry on page 7 the meaning rises from the page… ”the eternal tormented balance-sheet…” and in sleep, just like in death, “When your eyes are so heavy/ you fall into space, / pure/ unresisting downward miles/ of space – / arise and go now/ The dead go with you…” And deeper I journey on with Peter.
Is this the best Australian poetry book of the year and does Judith Beveridge get it right?
It should be read by everyone but I suspect that it won’t, except for poets in the know. Anyone who reads past page 36 will thereafter be transformed and know why Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness is a poetry award-winner.