"This Is Not a Letter and Other Poems," by Kay Boyle, is cause for celebration, the publication of a book of poems being a comparatively unusual event in the long series of publications by this writer--novels, short stories, newspaper articles, too many to reckon offhand, as against only four books of poetry.
This latest book is as full of the spirit of the writer as the sum of all the others. Angers against the cruelty and injustice of this world, tenderness for the most noble or the most pitiable aspects of humanity, a background of friendships and of life richly lived, all are here. And goodness knows that since the turn of the century there has been ample opportunity to experience beauty, joy and horror. Looking back over all the poems after a first, impatiently quick reading--I almost said an eager reading--I remember words like savage, violent, murderous, bloody, broken, which color so many poems. I remember also melody, rhythmic beauty, phrases notable for the cadence, perhaps more for their cadence than their thought. Anguish against injustice, unnecessary cruelty, deliberate cruelty, and anger at the lack of awareness or response to these griefs dominate the book.
Upon a repeated, slower reading, less impelled by a desire to experience the book quickly and as a whole, other more positive themes make themselves known, to be remembered longer.
The title poem, which is a wonderful title for the book, is not in itself the poem of the most value for me. Both touching and amusing, however, it is a lament for the death of an alcoholic painter, who, following several laments from his friends, speaks from the grave, entreating: "I am lonely here in the dark take my place for an hour seulement une heure pour que je puisse chauffeur mon coeur au soleil de la vie ." Such a summary is not of course entirely fair, since there are remarkable images, metaphors and evocations in the words of the friends, Marcel Duchamps, John van Wicht, but there are other poems that seem to me more rich; in fact, most of them.
The last poem in the collection, "To a Proud Old Woman Watching the Tearing Down of the Hurricane Shed," speaks for the future, a few less-negative words. Briefly, the paraphrasable content is this. Addressing the old woman, the poet says, You did not see what a bad state the old shed was in; "within the static of your memory" you saw only wood remembered as whole; therefore for you, the destruction of the shed was the destruction of your childhood, your youth, your young womanhood, a "devastation of the past you could not countenance." Then the poet says, "But there have been other executions, fiercer, bloodier." And, after a few lines of most powerful, most violent images, continues, "your hand nor any other lifted, and no requiem sung." And concludes: "Not for long does the high wind of life take words we speak/From out our mouths, and bear them swiftly, clearly through the air/So that the living and the murdered dead may hear.
(Let it be courage that our tongues compose,
There being no refuge from the hurricane that blows.)
This brings us back, of course, to the hurricane shed that was once a shelter, but now is full of decay, of the most awesome decay, and of deception. The symbolic meaning is not far to search.
I cannot quote the whole book. I can only recommend it as an adventure, an experience of great value. I keep remembering the vocabulary, the images of violence, the anger, violent images that damage the poems as much as in other instances, they strengthen them.
I admire especially an almost elegiac poem with the horrendous title "Branded for Slaughter." The first page of this concerns the Alpine meadows in which the flowers have been destroyed by the trampling feet of men. The second page treats the lives destroyed at My Song, My Lay, in which the images of broken flowers become subtly the broken bodies of children--"Flora delicate as the throats of the young, stalks snapped/Like wind-pipes." The concluding section is for the conservationists, a diatribe, deserved, for Man, whose "hand silenced great orchestras of trees, branded for slaughter/The lavish hills."