Friday 14 March 2014

Vowel music: Pilgrim’s Flower by Rachael Boast

I first came across Rachael Boast’s poetry when I read ‘Cabin Fever’, possibly here.

When night and the key to the door
descend together to the bottom
of a bottle of Laphroaig,
have your good ear ready
until the firth is a salty chorale,

The downward momentum of these first few lines full of hollow ‘o’s continues through a blend of the metaphysical and descriptive.  I can still remember the going-down-in-a-lift sensation which returns, beautifully, at the end; and the thrill of discovery. 

‘Cabin Fever’ was in Boast’s first collection, Sidereal, which won the Forward first collection prize.  I was afraid of disappointment with  Pilgrim’s Flower, also published by Picador: could it be as good?  Yes.  Casting about for adjectives, ‘dizzying’ seems right.  The poems in both books have a kinaesthetic effect.  Ears are for the music of poetry but also for balance.  If Sidereal was vertiginous, Pilgrim’s Flower is heady from a combination of metaphysics with the everyday balance of walking.  (But that’s a simplification – both books contain all these elements.)  A pilgrim is on a quest and/or carrying out an act of religious devotion; there are many poems with a walker’s-eye view, and churches. This is the beginning of ‘Deer Park’:

For a path is an un-going, congruent with the steep gradient,
a scar impressed across the landscape, prepared ground.

Turning this way and that, it is a parting, as if a stag
was buried deep in the hillside of the dream of itself.

‘Fire Door’ has an epigraph from Brodsky, which works for the whole book: “And isn’t a song, or a poem… a game language plays to restructure time?”  ‘Fire Door’ starts with a description of a journey and landscape and moves in to a scene where the narrator is opening the bar of a fire door to let the ‘you’ of the poem in:

saying we’ve been through this one before –
so much so, these sleepers crossing over
the rivers of other lives lead again
to the descending sun flaring above a line
of cloud as I return to the place

from which I started out, a place that could
trick me into thinking no time at all
had passed, were it not that I remembered
your flash remark: it’s alright, it’s the door
that’s on fire, you said, not the spaces on either side.

First the ear takes in the way the poem seems to uncoil, careful syntax and lightly enjambed line breaks working together without much punctuation.  Only then does the mind examine meaning.  I suspect that the writer heard the poem coming before she knew what it was going to say – isn’t that how the best poems are generated?  Boast has a page on the Poetry Archive (though without any poems yet, it seems), and one of her favourite quotes is given as Osip Mandelstam’s "The poem lives through an inner image, that ringing mold of form which anticipates the written poem. There is not yet a single word, but the poem can already be heard."

The placing of vowel sounds is important.  Boast uses assonance, and its opposite.  Though ‘uses’ may not be the right word; at least some of this is probably instinctive, originating in the place-before-words.  ‘What You Will’, just one example, has in its six couplets:

“I… wineglass empty… mealtimes… I might… in… transparency… away… festivity… silver… creates… in… trees. I didn’t think. I… breeze… piece… in me… I’d suddenly… my way… circling… by… floating… I re-… in… eye, recalling… boy… rhymes… conjoining Jupiter… sky.” 

I’ve probably missed some out (“the” counts, and I’ve left all those out).  The last two couplets are:

I re-read that look in your eye, recalling
the blue boy on bread and water and the rhymes

of the hour, the moon conjoining Jupiter
among the seven hundred poems of the sky.

The poem opposite this one, ‘Aubade’, also in couplets, sounds very different:

In the emollient night of roses and paraffin,
of burning hands and of all that burns

of broken sleep piecing together what for
so long had remained lost of what was lost


That ‘o’ in “emollient” dominates but the sounds change in the final three couplets.  The contrast between the other vowel sounds and the ‘o’s is just as important.  As for the repetition, that’s characteristic.    

A few poems contain more straightforward narrative or exposition, for example parts of the longer poem ‘To St Mary Redcliffe’, and ‘Double Life’, addressed to Thomas Chatterton:

You were bored of the mercantile and paid no heed to it
and when someone asked your name
coughed politely and walked the other way.

For me they are not as successful as those – the majority – where the thought twines over and through itself.  I prefer to start each poem not knowing where I am, set down in the middle of a thoughtscape to find my bearings and follow the lie of the land.  Boast can set this up with brevity, as in the five-line poem ‘Herm’ which you can read at the end of the Observer review of this book.

There’s humour among the metaphysical.  Three short love poems are ‘After Rioja’ (kinaesthetic poems can be erotic), and this is from ‘Annunciation in an Elevator’:

you were discussing miracles in the third person
with Picasso, wiping your plate unawares

with bread, wondering how it is we don’t melt
in the bath tub.

Many of the poems are addressed to a ‘you’ which often feels like a partner, though sometimes is someone else entirely, such as Coleridge (at which point the ‘flower’ of the title made me think of the Lyrical Ballads) or Akhmatova.  Whoever it is, ‘you’ becomes the reader; the voice of these poems is speaking from very close by, even from inside my head. 

Another of Boast’s favourite quotes is again by Brodsky: "Language propels the poet into spheres he would not otherwise be able to approach".  Rather like a pilgrimage.  Reading this book might take you there too.  Here is part V of a longer poem, ‘The Garden Path’:

Life’s precarious, a bed of water;
the sleep that comes
comes like an untying of ropes
that burn until I let the last one go,
the last small fire my hand can hold. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    I've never really read Rachel Boast but she sounds like an interesting poet even if she's probably attended too many Arvon courses. She's certainly picked a good role model in Joseph Brodsky.

    Best wishes from Simon

  2. Dear Fiona

    Sorry for getting her name slightly wrong. I meant, of course, Rachael Boast.

    Best wishes from Simon