Friday, June 2, 2023

Deborah-Anne Tunney : Openwork and Limestone, by Frances Boyle

Openwork and Limestone, Frances Boyle
Frontenac House, 2022





After my first reading of the poetry collection Openwork and Limestone, I went for a walk by the river – the place I often go to contemplate. There I found myself identifying with the order and beauty of nature surrounding me, an apprehension not possible if I had not read the order and beauty of this remarkable collection. In poems stilled to the essence of what it means to not only be a woman alive in our time, but to be human – to use our perception to appreciate not only the beauty and wonder around us, but also its discord and mystery.

          Boyle has given us honest – at times heartbreakingly honest – moments in the life of a mother, daughter, sister, mate, all the roles we inhabit – for it is through this deeply personal lens that the poet leads us to an attentiveness of life. It is through art of the highest order, such as the poetry in this collection, that our quest for meaning is possible. At its best, art quiets us, cocoons us in its magic and says, “look at this; pay attention”.

          In her poem, Girl on a Hill, after Prudence Heward’s 1928 painting of the same name, Boyle gives us a distillation of the woman in the portrait (‘I peer closer’). The poet finds in her close examination what the painting does not at first glance reveal:

                               …I seek to feel
through fabric that black earth, slightly damp,
to sense the yield of needle-bed against my left haunch
and thigh, along my bare calf, the top of my toes

where they press the ground. Can I hear the river,
feel the wind that blurs the trees, the imprint
of dirt on my naked soles? The Laurentians
beyond, clouds piling up blue upon them. Her
uncompromising regard, green leaves
sprouting succulent at her feet.

In the poet’s careful rendering through her own expansive art, we feel both artists’ urge to the observer and reader – to stop, to truly look, listen and recognize the import of this Girl on the Hill, who stares out at our world. In both these artefacts, we can see the power of art to freeze a subject into a moment, which in turn makes it permanent and definable, a stasis we can scrutinise, and if not totally understand, then appreciate.

          In ‘Camel Hair Coat’, one of her most personal and touching poems, Boyle asks, “If mothering is the thing in my life that’s pained me/most, how can it also have given immeasurable/ lightness? Tripwire delight.” Here we witness the poet’s amazement in the joy and, yes, ambiguity of parenthood, a theme continued in the poem, ‘Rocking Chair’: ‘My girl   part of me   an instant ago/It seems         In my arms//her skin against my skin’ As this daughter is now ‘looking/ at the world’, we are witness to the natural and yet painful moving away necessary in the relationship of child and parent, a need and an evolving that leaves the parent always vigilant for the child’s well-being. As in ‘Passage’ where the daughter’s sudden claustrophobia leaves the poet wishing she had ‘a lifeline to throw, /a silken cord for her safe passage back through time.’ How tender this impulse, as it mirrors what we as readers feel is the poet’s desire for us and the intent of art itself – to be provided safe passage back through time. The poet also uses the myths and rituals of history and even pre-history. By evoking ancient belief systems, the poet creates an intelligence and density which can be applied to our present-day life. In ‘Evoking Awen’ (we learn Awen is a Celtic/druidic word for poetic inspiration) we appreciate the way the poet sees in the past the same need to explore in words what is the essence of our existence, the same need in fact to find meaning:

no easy way     to translate
                                        a rapture    a breeze,
               to put words to
the flow of essence
                               the bards knew as Awen.

          In ‘End Times’, a storm is personalized as it shakes its fist at Earth, the ‘sulky teen’, and ‘Earth’s huff/hides her fear they will all turn//away, leaving her a cold blue stone.’ One has the impression after reading such imaginative work that no one but Boyle could have written it – for it is distinctive and the product of an inspired imagination. Who but someone with a unique grasp and appreciation of how beauty and time comingle could have written such graceful words as the following:

What tuning will bring me past static
to clarity, to that thrum of silence,
voices chiming, twining, a braid of sound
within that space between breathing
behind the exhale, pulling the inhale

in animate energy, that silent moment
that might be death, but for the animal
compulsion willing our squeezebox lungs
to echo ocean, and breathe.

This excerpt is from ‘The Whole Tall World’, the last poem in the collection, and with its urge to consolidate essential elements of the poet’s unique poetic imagination, a fitting place to end.

          The book itself has been lovingly made, with a beautiful image of rocks and lacework on its cover, a detail from Kathleen’s Vaughan’s textile assemblage called: Iceland: Earth and Sky. It matches in tone and subtleness the words and images it introduces.

          There are some collections of poetry that after you read them you are left with a deepening appreciation of the miracle of just being here. And Openwork and Limestone is such a collection, as it addresses the need for clarity in the quest for meaning, a meaning often obscured by the busyness of the everyday. This is a collection that will quiet the noise of this busyness and give the reader beauty and thoughts to contemplate what is not only important, but essential to the examined life. It is a collection to be savoured, and one I know I will return to again and again.





Deborah-Anne Tunney is a poet, short story writer and novelist who was born and lives in Ottawa. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Canadian, American and U.K. literary journals and anthologies, notably Threepenny Review, Missouri Review, Narrative among others. Her linked short story collection, The View from the Lane (2014) and her novel Winter Willow (2019) were published by Enfield and Wizenty. Her first book of poetry A Different Wolf came out in June 2020 from McGill-Queen’s University Press, and won the 2021 Archibald Lampman award.

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