Skip to content
Letters from the Periphery and Ideas of Travel by Alex Skovron and Peter Boyle
Puncher & Wattmann, 2021; Vagabond Press, 2022
ISBN 9781925780833; 9781925735369
Anne Elvey reviews

Letters from the Periphery and Ideas of Travel

by Alex Skovron and Peter Boyle

Poetry in its many forms bears a relation to an ecological poetics by way of its materiality, its encoding of breath, its engagement with senses of sight and hearing, its mediations of voice and encounter. The thingness of a poem is in this sense Earth-y, where the depth of embeddedness in human habitats—the way the human animal experiences love, friendship, companionship, trauma, loss, finitude and mortality—holds us in a languaged making (poiesis) that at once exceeds and fails to quite capture these exigencies of being a creature of Earth. Poetry is one kind of Earth-y language-music that is multiple, a mode of translation-interpretation of the ‘real’.

The poetry of both Alex Skovron and Peter Boyle exemplifies these things—the way form, craft, technique and voice can be both Earthed and Earth-y, the way the body in its fragility is ecologically embedded through this very vulnerability. Skovron and Boyle, poets whose work I admire, are expert in their poetic crafting—their use of form; choice of language, imagery and line break; the music of their writing. The two books I am reviewing are very different in style but there is a resonance in the poets’ penchant for a kind of mythic alterity that crosses with the everyday. Both writers are also translators (Skovron’s collection, for example, includes a translation of ‘Canto I’ from Dante’s Inferno). Both Boyle and Skovron embed in their work a sense of curiosity or wonder at the enigmas of being alive in this moment with all its challenges and complexities. Both books in their titles suggest journeys—letters coming from an edge; notions of excursion.

Alex Skovron’s Letters from the Periphery begins with ‘On the Beach’ carrying an epigraph from a Czesław Miłosz poem, ‘A family’:

Our dreams have their anchor
In the burning ember, deep
By the chambers of the sea.


Living in Melbourne, it is hard not to hear an echo of the 1959 anti-nuclear film On the Beach directed by Stanley Kramer. In the poem a ‘we’ watches a couple in lowering light. The agency of things—both so-called natural (waves) and human-mediated (masts)—contributes to the poet’s evocation of something at once wistful and solemn, awaiting “what the dawn will bring / or not” (1). The poem closes:

and we are left to ask each other’s eyes
if we should follow in their wake or stay
for the duration of the night, the week, the world.


Read against the title, ‘On the Beach’, with its resonance of apocalypse, the reader is prompted to consider the risks to this “duration”. The following poem, ‘The Wedge’, begins “We scouted among the ruins” (2) and registers unease not only in relation to monastery graves and their association with plague, but also in encounter with a vulture—a creature who in effect recycles the dead. The speaker tries to shoo the creature away but is left with his incapacity to know the intent of the other.

Skovron’s writing is beguiling in its interplays of imagery, form, music and in the way images themselves shift between place, situation and human relationships in each poem, so that each moment is complex, bringing history, philosophy and a questioning of human behaviours into intense conversation. Often within this intensity there remains a quality of close observation and something like whimsy but more solid, perhaps an embracing of the absurd without nihilism. A fascination with trains gives way to a poignant moment of missed communication (‘Ghost Trains’); airships proclaim “their terrible heresy” (‘Disputation’ 6); the poet’s land is “tormented” (‘Compulsion’ 5); the marvel of an early aircraft sits beside “a childhood whose measure had been flight” and then the witness of a plane crash, as if the three live together for the poet (‘Visitation’ 3).

In ‘Four Last Things’, eschatalogical apocalyptic imagery includes violence against a woman and a sort of rhythmic tone that might belie the problematic aspects of the vision; yet this problem is shared with biblical apocalyptic literature—the reinscription of violence even where it is called into question. In a different but related way, the final sequence of the collection, from which the book takes its title, ‘Letters from the Periphery’, investigates the threat of violence to another person through the voice of a potential lover who seems to be a stalker, though the speaker themself disavows this, as they pine for their imagined love. While the speaker’s voice—the ‘I’ of the letters—suggests a man writing to a woman, this is not explicit. The 17-poem sequence has something of the character of a psychological thriller crossed with philosophical inquiry, with its references to Wittgenstein and Kant for example—“my categorical imperative is you” (91), the speaker asserts. These poems include many references to male philosophers, poets and composers. At times the imagined speaker is like Bluebeard, narcissistic and threatening, reckoning they are fully in control. The sequence ends with the speaker at the door of the person addressed saying: “I have no need of keys” (97). There is a sinister quality to the ‘letters’ and the speaker’s imagined love interest does not speak in their own right, rather the poet opts for the unease of inhabiting the mind of the infatuated pursuer; the result is unsettling.

The book is divided into sections but without section titles, simply a blank page to indicate the shift from one to the next, an elegant choice. The second section begins with ‘Only the Music’. Referring to cosmic, creaturely mediators of truth and half-truth, the poem suggests hermeneutic questions about the impossibility of knowing and ends with a liturgical style dismissal, “Go now, and remember only the music concealed / behind the illusion that you know yourself” (9). The poem’s opening line, “Each cloud contains the history of the world” (9), could be read in counterpoint with a poem a few pages later, ‘Climate Change’, in which the relations between past, present and future are displaced in “a future forever gone” (18). Between these two poems are poems of reminiscence, of childhood, chess and coming of age, of moments when the numinous pierces youth alluringly, and a poem ‘From the Thirteenth Floor’ rendering, with beautiful attention to detail and as if out of time, a moment and its myriad connections to other persons. After ‘Climate Change’ comes ‘Arcane Geometry’ and a turn to “unremembered things” (19), suggesting that the unconscious be allowed to inform consciousness. The section closes with ‘To My Half-Brother’, a marvellous poem of trauma, possibility and the hope of connection despite unspeakable violence.

A third section begins with a translation from Jorge Luis Borges, ‘El Sueño’ (‘The Dream’), with a focus on receiving and giving. The gift that is music features in several of the poems in this section which closes with a sequence of a dozen 12-line poems, ‘The Light We Convert’, highly commended in the Newcastle Poetry Prize. Each poem of this sequence has a different pattern of stanzas to make up its 12 lines. Twelve takes its significance from the epigraph referring to “only twelve notes” (Paul Hindemith) (34). This sequence brings philosophical, perhaps theological questions, into conversation with composers and the question of the mattering of art and what it costs ethically/morally, what is displaced or neglected in art’s production and “our stubborn will to build what we think is true” (39). The speaker avers “art’s a gift for which you don’t apologize” (35).

Skovron is a close observer of human behaviour and the fourth section which begins with ‘The Other Side’, an erudite meditation on physics, contains several examples of his serious, playful, sympathetic, sometimes edgy studies of human habits and relations. ‘Diminished Light’ gently and poignantly inquires into the world of a child in a laundromat with a parent; imagining the child leaving with her preoccupied mother, the poet has her “hopping alongside, hungry bird” (48). A next section begins with a vignette on snow, that takes the tone of an aphorism (‘After Jacqmin’) and then shifts to meditations that range from the Trojan War to Vietnam (‘Prognosis’, ‘Antietam’, ‘Skull’), interrupted by curiosity about the famous ascetic Simon Stylites (‘Stylite’) and Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s early attempts at flight (‘Passarola’). With perfect tone, ‘Sixteen Men’, presents a terrifyingly matter-of-fact narrative of men forced to dig their own graves as their executioners will take their places “tomorrow” in the next “sixteen” (63–64). ‘Non-Incident at the Vienna Opera’ (dated 8 May 1906) recounts in first person a horrifying ‘what if’ when the narrator resists a sudden uncharacteristic urge to murder a stranger whose name he learns, but cannot quite recall, sounds disturbing like Adolf (“Alfons / or Aldo, something of the sort” 70). The poem ends, “I tremble even now, / ... to think / of what I, an ordinary man, was almost capable” (70). ‘For Length of Days’ closes the section; its endline rhymes, repeated in a sestina-like way, form their own poem encapsulating the tone of the section, “you / (dis)own / time / place / still” (71–73). In this section, Skovron skilfully matches his characteristically sophisticated build-up of narrative, imagery, existential inquiry with a necessary understatement of the horrors of the worst of human violence, in so doing the poems confront the reader with their own culpabilities.

While Letters from the Periphery includes poems such as ‘Climate Change’ that could be construed directly as ecopoems, it is in the poet’s implanting of existential questions in compound human worlds of history and relationality that the reader is worlded in ways that ultimately affirm the more-than-human embeddedness of human worlds.

A kind of reworlding is also at work in Peter Boyle’s Ideas of Travel. Comprising 140 poems titled just by number, almost a complete psalter, this new collection continues the spare, musical and imaginatively searching style of Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (2019) and Notes toward the Dreambook of Endings (2020), each published after the death of his partner Deborah Bird Rose. Ideas of Travel takes the reader into other worlds where converse with the dead is possible. Such converse is largely indirect, through imagery, fey meanders and slant address. Empty shirts hanging on clothes lines are a recurring reminder of the dead. The self is folded, unfolds, folds into itself through the travel of the poems; looking back to childhood, illness, losses, they ask what lies ahead (‘69’ ‘74’ ‘76’). Childhood memory is recouped and reinvested with meaning. Questions about past experience return as gentle if not always kindly hauntings. The poems, most of them not more than a page each and including a number of prose poems, gather such questions into their mythopoetic charm. This is not a book of answers but of finding ways to speak queries that arise in the spaces between worlds, those liminal places of resting with the unknown, approaching it and letting it be.

Where Boyle’s Apocrypha (2009) served to reenchant ancient classical lineages of myth and symbol in ways that had promise for ecological cultural reworldings, Ideas of Travel reenchants the imagined otherworlds beyond death. Here, Earth and the poet are siblings:

almost entirely
incomprehensible to each other
even in the impossible intimacy of touch

like breath and stone.

(‘61’ 73)

Boyle’s poems espouse and perform an ethic of openness to the unknown, the ‘more than’, which might be the vastness of ocean, the excess of love, or the beyond of grief:

if we could open
even the way an unused
book of blank lined pages
will open,

not even to be filled
but simply for the openness
held towards the world.

(‘57’ 69)

The unknown worlds of Ideas of Travel are peopled by more than humans, often symbolised by angels, animated by human interests. Yet this world beyond bears an uncanny relation to Earth which from its own alterity pushes the reader beyond anthropocentrism. The angels gather “as insects at the windows” (‘115’ 130). The poet both belongs and does not belong to Earth (‘120’). A gold leaf imprints itself on the speaker’s hand (‘120’). Writing intersects with an insect’s trail (‘112’). An imaginary of entering “earth’s inner core” is unsettled by an Earth in excess of human desires (‘24’ 30). Earth “shimmers” (‘68’ 80). Ancestries are more than human:

So many faces
shifting underneath my face:
faces of deer and bison, a dog’s
inquisitive glance,
a cat’s rapid assessment
as it turns away.

(‘37’ 45)

Many of the poems address a ‘you’, allowing for the ambiguity that the speaker addresses self or another, a departed one, an imagined reader. The limpid flow of imagery and language at the nexus of life and death brings a kind of beauty or grace, even joy, to writing as a form of acquiescence to mortality. This itself embeds the body and its load in its Earthy habitats where finitude is proper to humankind. Like Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Ideas of Travel is a poetry of holding, of being held—by memory, imagination, language—even in the “grief behind grief” (‘10’ 14). Light, which features in several poems, also holds:

a light that glitters in terrain
that belongs to the dead, to the ancestors,
to what is ancestral in us –

a light that holds
our before and after,
a light that holds.

(‘32’ 39)

This “small light” dwells in a space carved out of mud (‘32’ 39). What is “ancestral in us” (‘32’ 39), a departed mother for example, not only binds the ‘I’ to Earth but embeds the poet in Earth’s own making (‘81’). Loss, absences and the self displaced by grief are grounded in the beloved materiality of Earth and cosmos even as these are transposed into the imaginary of worlds between and behind worlds.

Alongside the ethereal quality of the poems and their excursions between worlds are moments of sharp ecopolitical commentary, hints at “serf labour” (‘7’ 11), “oncoming catastrophe” (‘7’ 11), surveillance of and violence toward demonstrators in “the Town Hall square” (‘11’ 15). Matter and word cross as an unspecified ‘they’ in a kind of eucharistic moment, “place wafers of oblivion on their tongues / and enter the word forest” (‘55’ 66). But traditionally the moment of communion is a remembrance not a forgetting; for the ‘they’ of the poem:

Departure is their one abiding profession.
They bundle up exotic carpets
and leave them behind.

(‘55’ 66)

While there is no single way to interpret this poem, the oblivion, the perpetual departure rather than dwelling, and the collecting and discarding of the ‘exotic’ together suggest a critique of a colonial imaginary. The travel in Ideas of Travel is not simply inward but pushes beyond the known:

I head always upward
into the eternally self-emptying
structure of sound

(‘18’ 23)

This could be a comment not only on the poet’s incapacity to know a phenomenon like sound but also a poet’s intention to inhabit structures of sound more faithfully in their own compositions. Still, “How frail the edges of words”, the poet writes (‘31’ 38).

Boyle’s words are poignant. They shift between moments of recollection, farewell and an ongoing dance with the departed, but in ways that are always in excess of these, embedding human meaning-making in more-than-human frames of Earth and cosmos where there are “potholes so deep they offer ways through into different skies” (‘128’ 143), where breath is inextricably entwined with matter, where words might:

go on rippling over trees
and mountains long after
we’ve vanished?

(‘98’ 110)

Through Ideas of Travel and its imagined journeys into worlds between worlds, a reader may be instructed a little more viscerally that Earth does outlive them.

Published: September 2023
Anne Elvey

is a poet and researcher, living on unceded Boon Wurrung Country in Seaford, Victoria. Her recent poetry collections are Leaf (Liquid Amber Press, 2022) and Obligations of voice (Recent Work Press, 2021). Anne is an Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University and an Honorary Research Fellow, Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. She was inaugural managing editor of Plumwood Mountain journal.

Other book reviews you may like

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.