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Write On Ottawa: Frances Boyle’s sound and light show

By Rob Thomas on February 9, 2015


It’s called chiaroscuro — contrasting light and dark for dramatic effect — and it is old school.  Picture Rembrandt’s face peeking out of the darkness like that macadamia nut in your double chocolate cookie.

It evokes some traditional associations as well.  Light equals truth. Darkness surrounds us and feeds on our fear, ignorance and/or inattention.  “The moon is a knowing blood orange,” for example that “hovers on the horizon, takes light doesn’t/give it.”

In her poetry collection Light-carved Passages, published by Ottawa-based Bushchek Books, Frances Boyle deploys all of that fine classic imagery, giving it an excellent contemporary makeover: High-beams slice through the mental clutter on a lonesome drive, or a flickering candle illuminates a mother’s path forward on another less-than-picture-perfect holiday.  But she also does a heck of a lot more.

In “The Power of Naming”, Boyle invokes the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen who was famously precocious and fascinated with languages, magic, Gnosticism and ancient civilizations.  Boyle writes:

You loved the shape of words, the places
where vowels twisted, consonants turned. Fresh life
woven into history’s bones: desert heat rising
from evening sand, ancient trees beneath northern waters.

Then weaves this into a meditation, contrasting the poet/narrators own difficult apprenticeship:

…I could have learned from you.
how poets need to be escape artist—unquick wrists,
smoke, and mirrors turned inwards.

Key elements of the collection are here: firm narrative, intensely personal voice, rich imagery, masterful line-breaks and a subtle attention to sound.

In “The Fox”, a chance sighting of this animal prompts a meditation on beauty and transformative moments.

Once I expected to step through a door like that
into green hills and unclouded horizons. I thought arrival,
I thought forever. I still catch myself believing
a switch will flip, and I’ll become a peeled shrimp of self.

In “Hinge”, the Montreal Massacre becomes a potential fracture point for a troubled marriage.  A father arrives home from a parent and tot swim, unaware of the tragedy.  “I stare at the two of you framed there/ then seize our daughter from your arms.”  But the frame shifts and the terrible news draws the family together for comfort and consolation.

The book is divided into five sections that deal with coming of age, poetic calling, domestic tensions, family history, and homecoming.  The play of light and dark is one theme but various story threads weave the collection’s 54 poems together.  The daughter in the early poems, for example, wrestles with the tensions of raising her own girls; the young woman who leaves the prairies mid-book later feels separation keenly: “…home, home to, to my girl cubs,/ tumble them rough/ with mother-lion love. Wrap them in velvet.”

Most interestingly, for me, the poems become more abstract and more sonorous as the collection progresses.  The tight narratives and artful story turns give way to more ambiguity.  As though the actual narrating voice of the poems were maturing and gathering confidence (becoming the poet/escape artist hinted at early in the collection?).

Here’s a stanza from “The fur of shadow”:

How the dark proffers
a clutch of moments
a bouquet, a nest. How music
can fill hands to overflowing.

There are passages carved by light, for sure, but also a bit of a sound and light show with lines that whirr and flash and dazzle, as well.