Invitation to the Voyage: Review by Jack A. Urquhart

An Enduring Legacy [also posted to Amazon.com]

A brief review, by Jack A. Urquhart

In the interest of full disclosure, I begin these few observations on “Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poems of Peter Marshall Bell,” by declaring that even though I never met Peter, he has been part of my life since 1998.  That is because until his death in November, 1994, Peter was partnered to my spouse, Raymond L. Boyington, who edited this collection.  For the last fourteen years, Peter has continued a part of our lives, his photograph occupying a place in the family gallery alongside children, grandchildren, former spouses, and our closest friends.  His story has been told and retold at gatherings of family and friends across the years.  In short, Peter is very much alive in our hearts and minds.  “Invitation to the Voyage,” lovingly edited and presented by Raymond L. Boyington—with the assistance and encouragement of Peter’s surviving friends—is both a celebration of, and a memorial to Peter’s extraordinary gifts—and his ongoing vitality.

The twenty-one poems in “Invitation to the Voyage” make use of many of the conventional poetic forms—free verse, dramatic monologues, narratives, biography, romanticism, and even an occasional ballad.  In fact, in a few cases, elements of several forms appear within a single poem.  I mention this because Peter was not a trained poet—and neither is this reviewer.  Thus, I make no attempt to critique his work in any traditional sense.  Rather, in undertaking this informal “review,” I rely for guidance on no less than William Wordsworth, who famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…” adding that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I believe that Peter’s poems underpin this broad, accessible definition—often beautifully.

For example, Peter’s poem, “Valentine’s Day” (which the author indicates somewhat ironically, should be read while the audience claps hands 4/4 time with a little harmonica ditty between stanzas) explores in rhyming free verse the often self-sabotaging gamesmanship of modern-day courtship, albeit between gay men in this case.

It’s the dance of hesitation

here in the wild west,

so choose your partners, gentlemen,

and see whose ego’s best.

The question to be sought? to seek?

is many ages old,

and far too often a man’s pride

has quenched the lovelight cold.

Here Bell seems to be poking sad fun at the quest for intimacy in an all too competitive world—a world where raw ego and the fear of losing the upper hand have doomed many a potential love affair.  The poem’s final stanza drives home the point:

So change your partners, gentlemen,

and mind your egos well

so if you loved your partner,

he couldn’t ever tell.

How sad, and true, and self-defeating those final lines.

Bell’s mastery of several languages is on display in the poem, “L’autre ne dït rien” (“The other says nothing”), which appears in the original French alongside an English translation.  One of the more enigmatic poems in the collection, L’autre mingles free verse with the repeated refrain of a traditional ballad.  Whether the poem’s ignored narrator is addressing an earthly (deceased?) lover or an indifferent God is a matter of reader choice.  But there is nothing ambiguous about the narrator’s tone—which alternates between plaintive resignation and outright anger.

“I am corrupt,” he said.

The other said nothing.

“I burned all my bridges,” he said,

“there is no way out.”

The other said nothing.

“I exaggerate everything,” he admitted.

The other smiled.

“But all the same, it’s over,” he declared.

The other said nothing.

For a moment silence reigned alone, then

he said, “You remember, don’t you?  No?”

The other said nothing.

“But where were you then,” he cried out

“when everything fell apart, when I

got lost?”

The other stared at the line of trees on the horizon

and kept his silence.

Bell wrote the collection’s final poem a mere six weeks before his death.  Entitled “Silent Vigil” (by the editor; several of Bell’s poems were untitled), the poem is steeped in the traditions of romanticism.  I count it the most moving and the most transcendent of the lot.

My soul will want to linger in your

presence;

It will take a place quietly near you

As you read at night or in the morning

As you rise to start another day.

Watching over you, my soul will delight

In the love we have shared on this Earth;

And even as it keeps its silent vigil

In a little corner wherever you are

My soul will thrive in my love for you.

And with this love, sustain itself for eternity.

As a writer, I like to think that the reason the poem resonates is that it leapfrogs grim reality—the cold, hard fact that none of us lasts forever (which Peter anticipates for himself in the poem’s first few lines)—to provide a glimmer of hope.  That hope is nothing less than love’s enduring legacy, a message—Peter’s message, in this case—so durable, so generic (in the best sense of that word) that as long as there is language and human beings to appreciate it, will comfort and sustain as well a thousand years from now as it does today.

And if Wordsworth, who held that the poet is charged with recollecting the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, can be believed, then a part of Peter must endure as well.  A part of him alive and well in a little corner somewhere—invisible, and in time, even nameless as we all shall be—wherever we human beings are.  And whenever one of us recollects his message of love.

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2 Comments

Filed under Memoir

2 responses to “Invitation to the Voyage: Review by Jack A. Urquhart

  1. I thought long and hard about expressing my heartfelt appreciation here for your review, Jack. So I simply “liked” it. WordPress sent me an email saying I must have vainly thought the review was about me. Alas, I was and am merely saying how much your thoroughly considered words mean to me. Thank you my dear man. I do in fact know the review is about Peter’s work and thank you yet again for a close reading and very fine review.

  2. So glad that you have read both, Mary, and so thankful to have such a friend. Write on!
    I hope you will also enjoy the short stories – soon to appear.

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