Charlotte Boulay’s poems are infused with a traveler’s sensibility, and rightly so. Born in Boston and educated at Saint Lawrence University, Ms. Boulay had done brief stints as a technical writer and labor organizer before traveling to France and spending a year teaching English in India. Somewhere in that pilgrimage, judging from the work presented here, a reverence for language and immersion in it became, to borrow Paul Tillich’s phrase, “the overwhelming concern.” How else to explain how an encounter with the mundane—the history of Boston’s water supply, say, or a presidential speech, or a painting on a museum wall—becomes the stuff of poetry? In Charlotte Boulay’s inspection of and reflections on the ordinary world, the notion of water, or of the secret lives below its surfaces, gets remade, reshaped into images and likenesses that become the wondrous utterance of poems. Single words —calenture, amaryllis, hellebore—become flash points, inciting the ear and intellect of reader and writer alike toward shared clarities. This impulse to record the moment, to hold the minute in a verse and recast the image as metaphor marks Charlotte Boulay as a poet. Whether her poems are easy or hard-wrought, whether poets are born or made, whatever forces bring them into being are, of course, stations on the old “nature or nurture” trail. But in any case, the goods are here in the work: the labor over every word; the fierce delivery; the measurement by weight, texture, color, and tone; the holding of it all up to the light; the turning one side to the other; the testing of the language for what rings true.
Quabbin Reservoir, 1939
Although I know better, I imagine it like Pompeii:
a bowl of fruit still on the table;
everything just where they left it.
Some people refuse to leave.
They wait till water sloshes over the threshold,
fills the shoes lined by the door.
Imagine the sunken weathervanes spinning
as algae settles on couch cushions and fish dart
through the banisters. Submerged peonies bloom:
coral in a Massachusetts field.
From the air you can follow roads that disappear
into water, then continue to the town center, turn
right at the general store. Not a rush, but a slow
rising; first they razed the acres, then they burned
the fields. After that, everything
got quiet and the animals fled.
Water is never still—skaters on the frozen reservoir
at dusk jump as it cracks and booms.
O amaryllis, send me a sign: the buffalo nickel I buried
in the backyard; the notch of a climbing
tree above water.
Leave me the furrow of a field in the dip
and run of current; let something I loved
float to the surface.
In the orchard, as the water rises to my knees,
the light resists its own drowning.
A wolf waits patiently at my feet.
Hawks perch on my shoulders.
A tropical delirium that causes sailors to leap into the sea
because they think it is a green field.
The way I get dizzy when I give blood,
red spheres slugging through the tube,
or on TV when the president outlines
three points, each conflicting with the other, then
desert blowing everywhere,
no green, not a blade in sight.
Come back, you said, but to me your lips read, jump.
Water as clear as the moment before waking
from a dream, then milky submission: I had my choice.
The way ginkgo trees wait until every leaf has turned
golden, then let them fall, all at once.
You wake, hair static around your head. It crackles
in the friction of your hands.
Since we’ve returned
it’s not the same. We’re surrounded
by greenery: tangled vines and stands of clacking
bamboo. Cluster of green bananas with a purple flower.
Burning rubber scents the salt air. I see
a plant imprinted
on the backs of my eyelids, impetuous, officious, a stripe
down the middle of each leaf like a skunk’s back—
it’s trying to look
like something else. My hands press
the sheets smooth. I wish
I didn’t have to be over or under all the time,
but just whelmed, ordinary, existing, not false and not true.
let me walk you home
The sky is an oyster, it spits
out a string of pearls, smooth as vanilla,
each gleam a cicada answering back.
Oh baby, my sweet treat baby
wails from a passing car. The sharp needles
of memory prick my heels. Shadows
light the street and buds close up,
retracting their flowers.
What are you waiting for?
What strange birds
will come mudskipping through this dark sky?
The sun will go out, leaving
everything the color of x-ray.
I want to be emptied
and to clasp your hands through water.
Je suis grise et perdue, arrête, arrête: now home
to unlock the whistling gate and watch
as stars slip from the sky’s maw,
little shining eyes on a string.
Watson and the Shark
After the painting by John Singleton Copley,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
It used to be a surprise—round the corner
of the museum and there it was, shark lunging
at the boy, nearly catching his hair in its teeth,
and the boat-hook poised to plunge. I was five,
never told that the boy had lost his right leg
at the knee. Copley hides his severed foot
in the swirling water, and I always wondered
where the blood on the shark’s teeth came from.
His small marbled eye fixed on me. Children
aren’t told nursery rhymes anymore, especially the gory
ones: here comes a candle to light you to bed,
here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Copley loved
the solemn glance, the family gathered
in the drawing room, the arm outstretched
that may never reach but always rests suspended;
the boy naked, drowning. I touched it.
For an instant my finger rested
on the shark’s cold grey skin.
Then my mother’s swift tug back
and an afternoon of saying I was sorry
but secretly, I was glad. It was clammy
and wet, muscles seething under the surface.
As much as I wanted that boy saved,
I wanted him eaten.
the horses of Lascaux
Get up early. Lace your sneakers.
Turn pale morning’s corner as you run
through the arboretum. See the slim
brown deer grazing in the wide field.
Do they make you feel more or less
lonely? It’s hard to say.
Get the paper. Pick up the trash cans thrown
carelessly to the stiff ground. Look at your reflection
in the car’s windshield. There’s a heaviness
on your eyes and lips, your shoulders droop
like flowers in a shallow vase.
Watch as five or six sparrows chase a crow
from one oak limb to the next. Its black wings
flap higher and reach thin branches that bow
under its claws. The birds fly over the house—
crane your neck to see them,
swooping past your cold chimney.
Peel an orange, the bitter zest spraying the air;
comb your staticky hair, it clings and crackles.
What you miss most in winter is the night breeze,
that rustling in the corner of the mind. Sleep
with the window open and find frost
on the pillow when you wake.
It’s dark now at tea-time, if you drank tea;
all along the street, houses seal themselves
against the cold. Gold squares of light flicker
and glow. Look up, the last great blue heron
wings his way south, alone and silent.
Wish to be a pack animal, a bear or a wolf,
or some other kind of animal, less self-contained.
Think of the sparrows, tiny and bitter, no, think
of the horses of Lascaux in their darkness,
running effortlessly into the distance.