Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Sea Was Never Far


A review and interview with poet, Marion Starling Boyer

                                                                                                           by Barbara Sabol


80 pages

released May, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59948-737-3


On a personal note: It has been quite the pleasure to meet Marion, a recently transplanted Ohioan, through this year's Literary Festival sponsored by Lit Youngstown, and via readings in our lit-rich Northeast Ohio area. What a delight to review her latest book, THE SEA WAS NEVER FAR.

The English coastal towns of Norfolk and Yarmouth serve as windswept, textured backdrop for the animated lyric documentary of The Sea Was Never Far, Marion Boyer's second poetry book. In both cinematic-like sweep and particular detail, the poet portrays the lives of those in the two main trades in the North Sea coastal towns, circa late 1800's to present: the herring fishery and the millers; this latter the poet's direct ancestors. The reader is privy to stories and memories of this rough North Sea coastal life via persona poems: we are charmed by the vignettes of cook deckie, beatster, herring girl, cooper, fisherman; by the thatchers, marshmen, cutters, mill dressers, and basket weavers, in speech lines alive with the distinctive dialect of the area.

A central figure in this host of townspeople is the poet's grandmother, Fanny Starling. The collection serves as a kind of reclamation project, wherein the poet amends the family tree, and honors her people, living and gone. The two prelude poems, "A Murmuration" and "The Investigation of Annie's Account" set the stage for Fanny's journey, from birth to her young life "given over as foundling:"

                        My grandmother Fanny was raised with a flock
                        of white pinafore girls, their hair cut like boys,
                        in London's St Pancras Home for Foundlings

                        They rose and retired at six, prayed, studied,
                        ate together, and were trained for service.

What the poet discovers in her journey to Norfolk and in a trove of archival records was this truth about her grandmother's identity as an illegitimate babe whose name was changed from Alice to Fanny at the baptismal font, and who, like her disgraced and disowned mother Annie, worked as a servant, until she immigrated to Canada. She left England to follow her love, Davey, sent there by his parents in hopes of separating him from "that woman―Fanny//. . .Four years older, no people."

The voices in these poems are wide-ranging and brimming with narrative drama. The reader is drawn into coastal time and place via voices whose rhythms are audible, whose tales, couched in cadenced vernacular, credible. Herring girls, who "salt, gut, sort. . .Make, pack stack the barrels" ("Barrels") figure among the book's remarkable characters. In "The Herring Girls, Great Yarmouth" a Red Cross nurse recounts tending to a herring girl in prose that pulls us
right to the scene:
                        . . .
                        . . .She says nothing but all her body
                        cries Quick, and quick! Get it out! The scale
                        in her eye is a misery common as salt sores
                        . . .
                        I sit her down and spread her lids, my face so close
                        on hers, her eyebrow lends me a mustache.
                        With my tongue I feel for the fish scale in her eye
                        and flick it out. Up she gets, wipes her face,
                        too impatient for me to rebind her cloots, the cloth
                        strips unraveling from her fingers. Ta! she calls
                        . . .

Likewise, in every poem, the diction rings true to the telling. In "Thomas, Home Fishing" Thomas speaks of his friend, Shrimp Watson, "The best-heartedest fellow/I know. . ." says Thomas and shares a story: 
                        . . .

                        Shrimp hates the cold. On the boat,
                        when we go below, he'll park his stern

                        on the fiddley. I got a warm sit now,
                        Tom, he'll say, roasting his arse

                        on the grate above the engine room.
                        He's on that like mustard.

Thomas's is but one voice that recurs through the collection. Our introduction to Thomas in the poem "Thomas Warren" illustrates the adroit speech line, sonic play and use of diction that fleshes out the poems' figures:

                        THOMAS WARREN

                        Mum was a rind of a woman.

                        If she spoke when Dad flogged me
                        he'd chuck a bucket of water at her
                        and lock her out.

                        There are worse things and better.

                        I signed on for the fishing at twelve.
                        It was the sea or jail for me.

                        Dad was a coalie for the steam drifters.
                        Drunk, he stepped off the pier carrying
                        a sack from the coal lorry.

                        Hauled him from the harbor dead as a mitten.

Fitting then that the book's closing lines should be in the voice of Thomas, out at sea: ". . .there's nothing on shore seems sizable/enough to worry about."

Apart from the almost chewy diction, the poet draws on our every sense in very tangible and visual language, best exemplified by the beautiful poem, "The Basket Maker in Norfolk Broads." Here, a narrative about Robert, the marshman, in the voice of his lover. In effectively parsed fragments, we see, feel and smell "Fens. A great flatness. Old swamped peat pits. Wetland ponds, water/meadows. Mudflats gleam. Sunlight glances, glares." Then our auditory sense responds to the long lines and lush sibilants that invoke a sense of ease, of time standing still in a hushed, sweet quiet: "Wind hisses through thickets of alder and willow/stirs the rushes. Shh. Shh. . .Water percolates in the quiet. . .We've come deep/and away from the sedge cutters' notice. Far off we hear the swish of their scythes."

There is a dynamic cohesiveness, voice to voice, poem to poem, in the The Sea Was Never Far, as if the figures were mesh of fishing net or willow reeds bound in a basket. Yet each unique. The collection is bookended by the figure of Fanny, opening with her coming into the world as a foundling in "A Murmuration" and in the penultimate poem, "I'm Stealing a Clutch of Stones," which figures both poet and her grandmother, Fanny. Here, as in the first poem, the poet speaks in her own voice, with both authorial distance and with empathy, the boundary between the two a powerful tension. 

The poet recounts both her own and Fanny's separate but intimately linked journeys. Boyer steps out of persona mode and into her own compelling voice at the end of the collection:  ". . .I've flown across the world/to step inside that house; to walk this shingle where she//must have come and felt the wind. . ." Fanny's arduous journey to Toronto, to Davey, in "the Saxonia's steerage" is conveyed in all its imagined awful detail. The closing couplet ends with an enticing implied ellipsis: ". . .I think of her trudging to Davey's door,/unprepared for snow, for all that might follow her knock." And the reader is left wanting the story to go on.


I was entirely captivated by the characters in this book, their voices, the particular vocabulary and idioms of the Norfolk area. Remarkable that you created this dynamic slice of life in an English coastal area. Its people and history come alive through the poems in THE SEA WAS NEVER FAR. Thank you for this stunning collection!

The poems take on an deeper dimension, in that this book is about your family, your ancestry, your people. This personal connection to the poems is where I'd like to begin our conversation.

What was the trigger event that inspired you to write the book?

I had a “Finding Your Roots” moment when a friend of mine offered me access to her account. On a whim, I entered my paternal father’s name and, surprise! up popped a photo of my grandfather posted by someone in England. The photo had been taken before he had emigrated  to Canada as a young man.  I was able to contact Peter and Ann, who posted the photo, and discovered Peter’s grandmother was a sister to my grandfather. That connection opened a doorway for me into learning why my grandparents didn’t like to speak of England and never returned.
As it unfolded, Peter and Ann helped me discover a secret that my grandmother had kept her entire life -- that she had been born illegitimate and was raised in London’s St. Pancras foundling home.

 So, you had no knowledge about your grandmother’s history before you started the collection?

No!  None of us in the family had any idea!  Including her two children, my father and my aunt who are dead, but it was important to me to find out about her history as there is a rare blood disorder in our family and I wanted to know the source, which we knew genetically had to be my grandmother’s father. Of course, he turned out to be the shadowy man who caused my grandmother’s illegitimate birth.
Two of my Canadian cousins and I decided to track the story down first-hand and we flew to London to meet Peter and Ann and to visit the London Archives and to see the Foundling Home museum. We also connected with relatives in the Norfolk area where our family has lived for generations back as far as I could discover. We held in our hands the actual documents which recorded my great-grandmother’s appeal for her infant to be taken in by the foundling home. We saw the sparse records describing my grandmother’s life in the foundling home where she was raised to be a domestic servant.
Peter and Ann took us to Norfolk to see the farmland and broadlands where my people lived and worked and continue to do so. We ate in the Nelson Head Pub which our great-grandfather managed in 1908 after the mill went bankrupt. We visited churchyard graves, spent the night in a mill converted into a deluxe B & B. I met distant cousins who grow reed for thatchers, who were fishermen and served in the merchant marine, who continue to farm in the same area my grandfather knew.

 Did you come away from your travels to Norfolk and writing these poems with a new or altered sense of identity?

The trip affected me deeply.  While in Norfolk I couldn’t get over how some many voices echoed my grandfather’s particular way of speaking. It was subtle, more cadence and sense of humor than accent, but it was all around me. And, of course, I came away with such a full heart knowing that my grandmother had felt such shame. Once Ann asked if it was too sad knowing her hard life.  I told Ann that somehow my grandmother had been shown kindness, because my grandmother was kindness itself. 

      Clearly a great deal of research went into the writing of this wonderful book. How did you cull and funnel all of that information to these 47 poems? And on that note, with so much place and person data to work with, how did you know when to call the book done?

When I began, I decided to simply write a few poems and see if they could be strong enough narratives to appeal to someone outside the family. I wrote a few and my critique group affirmed they were interesting, so I set a goal of doubling their number. And when they jelled, I doubled the number again hoping for a chapbook.
Then, research led to more research and I was flooded with information about the herring industry’s boom and bust, how rhubarb is grown in the dark, how the best reed in the world for thatch is grown in Norfolk, how a mill’s machinery operates.  It was all fascinating information but, finally, it came down to the voices for me. And that meant persona poems.
I fell in love with the vocabulary of the region.  I wrote entire poems to find an opportunity to use a phrase like “dead as a mitten” or “the sails are asleep.”  It took a year and a half of writing.  I created an expanding list of ideas, such as “write about the basket weaver…need one for the herring girls…” and when the list was exhausted, I decided I was done.

Please talk about your research. How did you find and gather the great amount of local character information, lore and all those rich details about the fishing and mill industries in Norfolk and Yarmouth?

Firstly, I had actual people, my people, to talk with face to face and I listened carefully.
One was “Toady,” or Brian Rudd, a dear distant relative who knows all the ins and outs of the herring industry. I had Peter Starling, who took us through the broads on his boat, walked us around the Starling farm, sang sea shanties, and shared stories and photos of the farm, the war, the mill and the family members, like Austic who rode the windmill blades on a dare. 
I collected books on all these subjects. One is a book 157-page glossary of fishing terms and superstitions.  I wrote to Jonathan Neville who has a website database compiling information and photographs for over 1,000 miles in Norfolk and their histories.  And I read newspaper accounts of shipwrecks, and interviews of fishermen and coopers and beatsters. I found a fine old book written by a miller’s son I poured over his diagrams of mill machinery.

        When writing about past events, there is always the issue of historical veracity. How much filling in of the blanks did the poems need, and how did you balance fact and invention is the poems?

The voices in this book are mostly those of real people. I invented a few to round out the full picture.
My grandmother’s history is important to me, even though it is spotty. The archival information indicates that even the investigation into how Fanny’s mother became pregnant is ambiguous. In the book I keep that ambiguity unresolved. The one thing I know for fact, that my father never knew about his mother, and Fanny never knew for herself was her birth name, which is Alice Southgate. The foundling home re-baptized her Fanny.
My grandfather was loath to speak about his life in England, so after talking with every family member I could, calling upon the sketchy memories of the elder English relatives and a very few letters, I decided to give myself some leeway in guesswork. It was my decision to write his story showing his parents attempt to block his romance with Fanny, who was my grandmother. This was hinted at in one letter and I believe it created an animosity that kept him silent about his parents and England.
Thomas Warren, Alfie and Nora, Robert and his wife, are pulled from my imagination but their work and concerns are real. The other people in the book are all real. Toady, Jello, Duffy, Dumps, Teapot, Mute, Old Ben, Georgina, Austic, all the others, and of course, Alpheus, my great-grandfather.

You chose the persona form for the lion’s share of these poems, and were really able to inhabit the figures in the book. How did you locate the voice and temperament of each of these very different characters?

I appreciate that compliment. My biggest challenge was how to handle the Norfolk dialect as it is distinctive and pronounced.  I couldn’t accurately write in the voices of some of my characters as it would be hard to understand without footnotes but select phrases and colorful vocabulary words allowed me to establish voice, as long as I could make the context elucidate meaning.  I wanted to avoid a glossary at the end for words such as “beatster,”and “cloots” so hopefully the context makes their meaning clear.

The cover is beautiful, and a perfect complement to the book’s content. Please tell us about the cover art.

Thank you so much for mentioning the cover!  I am proud of it.  The painting on the cover is an encaustic piece painted by my niece, Sarah Starling, who is an artist living in Denver.  Her magnificent work can be seen at  I was grateful Main Street Rag’s editor, M. Scott Douglass was open to using her work for the cover and it was especially important for me to have a Starling family member’s art on the cover of this collection.

Please talk about your writing habit. Are you a poet with a scheduled writing time, or write as the muse dictates? Both?

I would like to tell you that I am disciplined and sit each day routinely tapping away on a schedule but that is not my habit.  I find that I write in intense long periods, by which I mean obsessed months at a time, and then long months will go by and I want to write but find there is nothing in my brain to write about. I do not like those months.
I have little patience for writers who moan about the work of writing.  I like its challenges, from getting down the first draft to all the layers and phases of revision. I enjoy the deep immersion into writing, writing until I forget that I should have eaten that day and that my dog and husband are wandering forlornly, clearing their throats hinting that a it would be great to have me present for a while. 
When I want to write and haven’t an idea, I am cranky.  Having a big ongoing project, like The Sea Was Never Far helps as I can exit and re-enter the work as I imagine a novelist gets back into the story by writing the next scene.

Can you tell us about your next writing project?

I am exploring an obsession.  I am compelled by the story of the Antarctic explorers who were the support team for Shackleton’s 1915 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s heroic and epic story of survival has been told and retold many, many times and his incredible story has eclipsed the valiant and equally epic story of his men on the other side of the continent who were charged with laying the food depots for the Antarctic crossing.  I hope to do justice to their story but also weave through, as a counterpoint, the voice of Antarctica herself. 

Marion Starling Boyer, professor emeritus for Kalamazoo Valley Community College, has published three poetry books: The Clock of the Long Now (Mayapple Press, 2009), nominated for a Pushcart and Lenore Marshall Award, and two chapbooks, Green (Finishing Line Press, 2003) and Composing the Rain (Grayson Books, 2014). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Born in Ontario, Canada, Boyer calls the Great Lakes region home. While she has lived most of her life in Michigan she now resides in a small town near Cleveland.

Barbara Sabol is the author of the poetry collection, Solitary Spin (Main Street Rag Publishing), and two chapbooks, The Distance Between Blues (Finishing Line Press) and Original Ruse (Accents Publishing.) Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Barbara’s awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. Barbara is a speech therapist who lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.

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