Catching Light: Helen Boyles, Indigo Dreams
Helen Boyles is an honorary associate in the Department of English with the Open University and has worked since 2002 as an associate lecturer on undergraduate courses in the arts and language faculties at the university. She is also co-chairman of the Devon-based Moor Poets which has several successful publications to its name.
This debut pamphlet collection, comprising 21 poems, covers a range of subjects linked primarily to the natural world. Its title Catching Light encapsulates what these poems are about. The cover shows a spider’s web strung across a gorse bush which is bathed in sunlight. The web, which takes on the appearance of an intricate piece of lace hung with dewdrops, is a work of art that has been especially illuminated by the light. Boyles knows all about light. For her, it is a never-ending source of inspiration. In ‘Western Light’ she writes about how it illuminates stone surfaces, sharpens the definition of the landscape, catches the flight of birds, alters spaces and shifts the relationship of one thing to another. There is another sense in which this collection is suffused in light and that is the way in which the creative spirit can cast light on all manner of things as well as helping to bring them into being.
One of the strengths of this collection is the sequence of poems about writers and artists which explore the creative spirit. There are portraits of the Venerable Bede writing his cursive script, which Boyles chooses to describe as ‘a white lattice,’ his body “…cloistered in stone / beaten by light and wind from the marsh / and sea space / stretching to the edge of sight.”
In ‘Courbet’s Apples’, Boyles describes how Courbet uses his imagination to conjure the golden light of apples in the dusk of his cell while serving a term of imprisonment for his connection with the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871:
He feels the fruit’s coarse skin,
the windfall bruisings, knows
the beauty of imperfections
in earth’s rough, sweet offering.
To Courbet, prison confinement must of itself have seemed like a Still Life. This is a beautiful poem about the power of the mind to transcend all things.
‘Mrs Radcliffe’s Gothic’ describes the author of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ weaving a tapestry of stories seated by firelight, embroidering them with a skill that was to impress Dostoyevsky. The dark shadows caused by the flickering flames vividly call to mind the atmospherics of the Gothic novel:
At invention’s busy heart a picture grows
and gleams with stolen flame. Meticulous, deft-
fingered, the embroiderer weaves in its frame
a story’s elements: a lonely chamber, dark
angle of the turret stair, pale face at the window …
Her portrait of Blake is as an engraver rather than as a poet but, even as he is working on his engravings, “his mind sweeps visionary continents”.
The Van Gogh sequence is cast in the form of a series of letters addressed to his brother Theo. Again, this is cleverly executed in its exploration of the rigours of artistic endeavour.
Spiritual aspects provide a powerful undertow to poems such as ‘Mary’ and ‘Casting Nets’ even though neither of these poems are overtly religious. The former takes as its starting point Seamus Heaney’s last words to his wife, Mary, “Noli timere” - “do not be afraid” and the latter is more about hope and belief than it is about Christ’s command to us to be “fishers of men”.
The nature poems can be read on several levels. ‘Otter’ not only describes the animal but, with its interesting fusion of the animal and the human, can be read as a poem about how we retain something of the past that continues to live within us. In a slightly different vein, ‘Wicken Fen’ also develops into a bigger theme that stretches beyond the place itself to take up the more general subject of the draining of the fens.
These are carefully crafted poems grounded in topography, history and light. They capture the beauty of landscape and celebrate artistic endeavour. They are at once both vivid and captivating and leave you wanting to come back for more.