Michael Killingworth reviews The Age of Cardboard and String by Charles Boyle (Faber £7.99)

A good few of the poems in this book are prefaced by a line or two from Stendhal, and the whole by a quotation from La Chartreuse de Parme:

‘What!’ cried the Duchess in amazement. ‘It is you, sir, one of the greatest poets of this age, the famous Ferrante Palla?’
‘Famous, maybe, but most unfortunate, that is certain.’
‘And a man of your talent, sir, is obliged to steal in order to live?’
‘That, perhaps, is why I have some talent.’

I have reproduced it because it almost makes this review redundant. On the surface, a witty drawing-room conversation, beneath which is a lament for the condition of poetry to-day, obliged to "steal" since it cannot earn a living, and below that again an eerie prefiguration of Eliot’s comment that "bad poets imitate, good poets steal". The opening piece in this collection ends with the lines:

I felt like a thief of dead men’s boots
On the field at Waterloo.

The images – of survivorship, of doing wrong, without knowing to whom – recur throughout the collection. After all, we have survived the terrible 20th Century, and we cannot explain why. Not through our merits – as the title poem makes clear, we are infantilised adults who build "whichever string you pull, the same machine", blame God for our crimes and boast of secrets we tell

…to the zebras first

the black one with stripes painted white,
the white one with stripes painted black,

who sleep on the landing,
leaving just enough room to squeeze by.

What is not understood in consciousness is often doubled in imagery, and the zebra is a superb symbol for the problem of the nature of good and evil (black and white) which it is just possible to "squeeze by" without addressing. But the terrible price to be paid for this is exposed in the very next poem, Things to Do Indoors, in which the attempt at self-understanding degenerates into addiction, death, insecthood and objectification in twenty-five lines. This masterpiece will, I trust, be in all the new anthologies. And the process is terrifying: who will I be when I know who I am? In Boyle’s world there are mirrors all right, but they are not used for their right purpose.

Remorselessly, Boyle prowls the barren alternative. Poem after poem explores, with an only apparent lightness of heart, one device after another for squeezing past the zebras: The Wellington Group, The Lady with the Dog, Fourth Alibi (Room 209) – but none of them answer. Hope itself dies: in Skandarlija, after a quarrel "nursing my hot cup of self-righteousness… I could sit here happily for the rest of my life" – the only alternative is an insincere apology.

There is no possibility of intimacy in such a world. In The Break a married couple simply do not communicate: the speaking voice fears that his life is over and, despite himself, foretells that he will be as poor a father as he is a husband. There are only two conversations: in Hosea: a Commentary the outcome leads to violence immediately, to restore the world to the way the speakers think it should be. Significantly, the violence is symbolic rather than real (a compulsory hair-cut) and is practised, in one of the few examples of joint action in the whole collection, by the poet in company with a stand-in for the minor prophet Hosea against the major prophet Isaiah, as punishment for supposedly breaking a "gentleman’s agreement". Such, of course, apply only to gentlemen. In The Lady with the Dog the conversation peters out: the poet fears the lady has found him out, has seen his affinity with the dog – but even the dog sees through him "and scampered away towards King’s Cross". These are the only two prose poems in the collection (there is no rhyme), as though free verse has become exhausted as a medium of communication and can only be used now to report what is frozen within

…lifelike but blanketed by snow
on which a most delicate crust
had formed overnight.

That is how The Pink Hotel ends, a poem written in the first person plural with no differentiation of the voice, as though to suggest schizophrenia, or else an acknowledgment that Boyle is a poet of a certain type, who misuses the poetic gift of naming to produce chaos. Here the possibility of redemption is offered by "small children who approached in ones and twos" to ask how the way to healing may now be found – but, of course, "we" have no time for that, we must – disastrously – do something else.

And if there can be no intimacy, there can be no intimacy with women in particular. They can be the objects of violence, as in The Nature Trail – or merely objects: West One begins

Who owns these women with perfect skin

and in Cabin Fever the woman is just one more object in the hut which

…a man might now and then step into,
take what he wants
and leave, not forgetting to lock the door.

She is as lifeless as Eliot’s typist. But if, as in Eleanor of Aquitaine, she answers back, he cannot cope, turns away. Better, perhaps, to miss her altogether, as in My Alibi.

This poem is an exquisite distillation of much of what Boyle has to say. It derives its force from a willingness, which he more usually eschews, to drive his argument on to its end. It thus exhibits a more classical narrative form – and in modern poetry, two 12-line stanzas not only permit but compel narrative. The reader to-day fills in more blanks than ever before. So when I am told that the assignation is "in a bar behind the abbey" I know that it is going to go wrong. The rest of the first verse gives us the heightened sensibility of the anticipating lover, and ends in what, as is usual with Boyle, only appears to be a comic moment – "a tourist both lost and drunk" – but is in fact, the turning-point of the tragedy. For the tourist is the poet himself, whom he has not recognized. He now loses track of time and is transfixed "in front of the backlit window / of a religious bookshop". The "love" he is supposed to meet is not, or not only, a woman. He panics, and when he does arrive "my love had gone" but "three angels" play cards and debate "the essence / and the energies of God" with him. In the circumstances, he has achieved as much, if not more, than he had any right to expect. He has been able to forget his need for love and it is in the presentation of this as an acceptable alternative that the full horror of the way we live now is displayed.

My Alibi takes place on a November night. But what if it were summer, at least within the poet’s heart? This is explored in the companion poem Summer, an Afternoon. Now, "with time to kill" he enters the bar, and, because he is not looking for her, "there by the window is my love". But she is absorbed in what she is doing, and all she has to offer him is a monologue of self-obsession, which he puts up with for too long. His efforts to engage with her are too feeble and

…this poem is closing now,

the waiters are checking their watches, the abbey
is being rolled up

and they leave "hurriedly" by the back way. The poem closes with a list of what is to be seen on the way out, with objectification. It seems that either way she is not available to him: that she is only his "love" in that he has projected this role onto her. She is indifferent to it. It is, whatever he tells himself about it, only a provisional emotion, a pretence which may be distracted by junk in a back-room.

It is with this junk, presided over by "a cat curled like an ammonite", that the collection ends. The cat, as I see it, is asleep. So, perhaps, is poetry to-day – dreaming, if it’s lucky, of a former golden age when it was read for itself and not a circumstantial film tie-in, when it made profits for publishers and had the ability to enter political debate. What is it to do in an age of cardboard and string, when the very idea of a honest billionaire is more alarming than that of a corrupt President? Charles Boyle has done one thing, and done it well: he has kept on going. He has not defiled the tradition which he has inherited.

However, I am left with a sense of failure of nerve. The use of Stendhal as a reference-point both assists and impedes – assists, by reminding us that the anomic "modern" sensibility is older than we often think, and impedes by occluding the possibility of redemption, or transcendence. Only in From the Rooftops – which pays its literary dues in another direction entirely – is this need addressed directly. And I find his handling of the more archetypal imagery which this theme requires less assured than the other poems. (It is, of course, more difficult: that is the point.) I see in its placement in the collection, next to last, an acknowledgement of this. Boyle does not lack courage, and I cannot believe that he lacks the further courage to address himself to this, the only real question: the possibility or redemption or transcendence. I would like to hope that in his next collection he will travel back in time for his inspiration, to the rich treasury of myth, and present his own redaction of the Single Poetic Theme. The rolling-up of the abbey – and the abbey itself is all too aware of it – is the bardic opportunity. There is a ledge between music and cinema where poets may pitch camp and sing songs of healing. Perhaps only the wind will hear us, but we must not mind that.