Tuesday 15 August 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "The Last Spring of the World" by Maureen Boyle


Following on from her powerful 2017 debut, The Work of a Winter, Maureen Boyle continues her blossoming relationship with Irish publisher Arlen House. Included in the collection is the sequence ‘Strabane,’ originally published as a separate volume alongside photography by Malachi O’Doherty. Strabane is a small town in County Tyrone, near when Boyle grew up: through the prism of the town, we see a rich and innocent childhood, slowly infringed upon by the rising ‘Troubles’ across Northern Ireland.

In the opening poem, a sort of prelude for the entire collection, Boyle asks:

          How could there never be another spring?
          How could we live without the sense
          of the earth surging into labour

The entirety of the work on offer here is an attempt to answer these questions, of feeling the simplicity and ataraxia of springtime, balanced against infringing adulthood, political unrest, and ultimately, the knowledge of death. Early on in ‘Strabane,’ we are treated to pastoral scene of a weir and a salmon leap, caught up in its natural grandeur, when suddenly, unexpectedly, we are hit with the line 'and where two little brothers drowned.' Similarly, after more idylls of glamour and shopping trips, the first line of the next sequence begins 'And then something came to blow the past away.' It is on such knifepoints that innocence can be lost and which Boyle remarkably conveys.

The study of Strabane brings to mind Damian Smyth’s own studies of Downpatrick, a microcosm of the world used to explore life in general, although Boyle’s style is closer to the prosaic ease of Durcan: there is intimacy and familiarity here. The sequence ‘Namesake’ recounts the life of a close relative, and we read of a life as if it was someone sharing stories at a wake. Similarly, in ‘Luscus,’ we get the account of how the author lost an eye as a child, Boyle choosing to focus on the tenderness experienced from the ocularist afterwards, rather than the tragedy itself.

However considerate the chosen tone and filtering of memory may be, tragedy creeps in however, often in the form of death. ‘Bypass,’ another sequence (Boyle is evidently fond of the form, and in the sequences that stand out strongest in the collection), speculates that 'There must have been a day | when you held my hand for the last time.' Elsewhere, the question is posed: 'What is it like | to wake for the last time?' Boyle rightfully affords to herself these ruminations, but also realises that one must move onwards from remembrances to new milestones. Hence we have ‘First Time,’ a playful yet poignant account of an initial sexual experience:

          It felt like a mix of Christmas and a trip to the dentist.

          The thing itself was a surprise – the shy manoeuvrings,
          the shock of fitting into place

New outlooks come into being, and the tone is optimistic, hungry and excited: 'You must learn everything afresh'; 'Hope arrives with the lilacs.' And yet the lure and pull of the past, of childhood and her hometown, clings to the poetry, as if through words Boyle is measuring the distance between childhood and adulthood. ‘Enclosure’ tells of closed gates 'to keep the children in | and safe'; in ‘Crossing the Alps,’ we are warned that 'All this play' is just

         a way to prepare us
         for the real danger that lay
         always, just beyond our gates,
         our ages and our lives

These lines perhaps serve as a perverse irony, coming in the book just become ‘Luscus’ and the loss of an eye, an accident that happened at home. Yet Boyle manages to successfully juggle these mixed fronts of threat, of childhood, of mixed reflection and adult examination. The Last Spring of the World serves as another stand-out collection from Boyle, who is fast becoming a premier voice within Irish poetry, and indeed deserves to be recognised outside of that field as well.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

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