Review: Maureen Boyle – The Work of a Winter

Maureen Boyle, The Work of a Winter, Arlen House, p90
ISBN: 978-1-95132-183-4

Winner of the Strokestown Poetry Prize and Ireland Chair of Poetry Prize in 2007, fans of Boyle have waited a long time for this, her debut collection. The happy news is that it was worth the wait. The Work of a Winter is a promising introduction to Boyle’s work, resting comfortably between narrative sequences, black humour, biographical sketches and pastoral tenderness.

Boyle draws heavily on the lives of others for the collection: biographies of Rudolf Nureyev, Hildegard of Bingen and Mícheál Ó Cléirigh are cited, alongside stories borrowed from other historical figures. It would be very easy to follow the course of their lives, from point A to B to C; but rather, Boyle wants to give us some measure of each individual’s own passion and beliefs, as well as the obstacles they encounter. It’s basic storytelling, cleverly plotted out, so that although the reader may know nothing for example of the chronicles of medieval Irish history, we are still captured by the portrayal of Ó Cléirigh’s faith and devotion.

The collection opens up however on a more personal note, a sequence in memory of Boyle’s father, detailing the family home, schooldays, holidays and a “ghost brother”. Books in the house are delightfully described as “toys” and “building blocks”, the roots of Boyle’s oww literary interests established early on. Amidst the memories, we are given juicy asides, little tangents that interest us more perhaps than the main story, but are the more tantalising for giving us only the outline of the story.

+++He bought that house from a jilted Orangeman
+++who didn’t know that land was not to be sold to Fenians
+++and tried to buy it back…

+++…married by a priest who looked like
+++Montgomery Clift but who lost his mind in Biafra and had
+++to be carted away when he nailed himself and a woman
+++called Mary, who had the stigmata, into the parochial
+++house.

Similarly, we see the author as a child, trying to figure out where babies come from, believing her friend’s explanation as “[s]he was Protestant, so knew about those things”, each passage using humour to mark out tragedy and division in an unexpected but witty manner. At times in the sequence, and in other poems too, the writing can stem into prose-like passages, the line break coming where it fits visually, creating harsh enjambments, with phrases split, lines ending in conjunctions, or creating uneven pacing. There are poems written in even tercets where suddenly a quatrain intrudes, a poem in octets losing or gaining a line here and there, or a line overflowing or cut short. Although not following any strict metre, Boyle does largely write in form, and noticeable deviation from any chosen layout suggests that there are lines which were struggled with. Thankfully, no example takes away from the essence of any poem, but once a form has been established, it’s not unreasonable to expect continuance and uniformity.

The Witch in the Wall, on the subject of sheela na gigs is a particularly fine narrative poem, bringing together Boyle’s skill for storytelling, imagination and humour alongside her historical interests. Two archaeologists visit Cork, experiencing a strange encounter, the mystery and oddness of the sculptured well captured in the poem

+++It was first thought they were the Catholic Sacred Heart,
+++the chest walls held open for divine light to shine through
+++but then someone saw what it was hard to see, something else,
+++something they must be delicate in writing home about.

+++Not the walls of the heart then, but the secret place
+++of a woman opened on the world.
+++The woman on the road to Ballyvourney
+++cannot conceive of a situation in which they would do this themselves

It’s laugh-out-loud whimsy here, with the word choice of “cannot conceive” reflecting piety and modesty, although perhaps again, the line break would be better fitted after “conceive” for emphasis.

Birds are a fond subject, popping up frequently throughout, with thrushes, blackbirds, magpies, owls, wrens, goldfinches and others are named. The Droll Yankee gives a great image of them lined up on a branch “to shit amicably at their morning lavatorium”, a wonderful line amongst all the natural imagery. The miracle of Ciarán of Saigir commanding a kite to return a stolen baby bird to its mother is invoked, whereas a poem in memory of a friend imagines their spirit seen – or possibly not – in a balckbird, “silver back hens” and “the pink-throated bird that flies from the ash”.

One might want a quick refresher of Shakespeare’s plot before delving into The Winter’s Tale, Boyle isolating Hermione from the main narrative and exploring her story of loss and exile. The sequence opens up violently, detailing the pains of childbirth while in prison, told through Emilia, a lady-in-waiting, unable to “stanch” Hermione: “she was sluiced all right”. The poem goes on to detail the agony of separation from her child, Perdita, and Hermione’s time in hiding with Paulina, imagining the ostracised queen finding comfort in horticulture. Boyle describes how “hellebore, pale as a morning moon, drifted into flower”, the image mirroring Hermione’s own transformation in the play from statue into woman. Interestingly, the poem doesn’t follow on to her reunion with King Leontes, but leaves Hermione in the garden, bold and defiant on her own – “I am my own richness” -giving a modern feminist spin on the tale.

There is much to celebrate and enjoy here, Boyle delivering a well-rounded collection whose subjects and themes are diverse and stimulating. The poem move easily from historical to personal and back, with stand-out notes along the way. Latin Lesson will strike fear into the hearts of any past student who have to suffer through the textbook Ecce RomaniSitting Out is the near-obligatory poem in dedication to Seamus Heaney that nearly every Northern Irish poet must have, although Boyle’s moves past the standard ‘where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news’ reflection to casting Heaney as “a kind of Tollund man | spriting yourself up and out across the bog”. The Work of a Winter is the reward of Boyle’s years of craft and study, and is a fine debut amongst the work that publisher Arlen House has delivered audiences in past years. We hope it will not be so long a wait until her second book.

The Work of a Winter will be launched by Arlen House at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on Sunday 17th December, 5pm.

1 Comment

  1. Angela Courtney

    This delightful collection , Maureen Boyle’s first published collection, is adding happiness and pleasusur to the joy waking on a crisp bright morning as light cloud changes from pink and gold as the sun rises. One of my very special Christmas presents. Thanks to both Maureen who signed it and Pete who bought it …

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