A Mothers’ Day “Boast”

Pilgrim's Flower - Nominated for a 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize

Pilgrim’s Flower – Nominated for a 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize

Today, Mothers’ Day, I raise a toast to the English poet Rachael Boast (1975 – ) who has been making waves across the pond for a few years but who recently made a big splash here in Canada with her second poetry collection Pilgrim’s Flower –  an international nominee for 2014 for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. I first discovered Boast through her first much lauded and awarded book Sidereal published by Picador in 2011 and because of that bought Pilgrim’s Flower last year.

In a quiet way her poems make a sensation. They pack an intellectual weight, the image-rich gatherings of a curious and scientific mind that holds room for the transcendent and the riches of the Bible but are not afraid to delve into the deeply personal. And above all  her poems pack an emotional wallop that more often than not catches me off guard. Like this gem, this sonnet in a surprising and unexpected form, from Sidereal:


And how like us it was
that a freak fall of snow
came to pass comment
on the scene. Not the coffee
and the conversation,
but the parting kiss
and its quick precision

after which not a thought
could come to rest
without losing itself in the next.
And even if one day
tells another, we started
as we meant to go on, in the light
of those elliptical flakes.

Rachael Boast from Sidereal, Picador, 2011

To say this is a chilling poem is no understatement. And the more I read it the colder I get! How she lets the metaphor of the surprise snowfall carry the poem and how she lets the musical sounds she creates enliven the poem. Her use of  “s”  and “t” sounds (scene, kiss, precision, rest, next, light, flakes) makes a particular resonance that unifies the poem. I so enjoy how the s’s run into the t’s and create a finality the poem is leading us to – the end of a relationship.

What an accomplished new voice! And you can see that as well in a feature she is included in on the Picador website (Poets on Poetry). In that feature she says something which for me is such an authentic characterization of poetry:

Picador –how do you personally write a poem?

Boast –
By what feels like a very impersonal process. The poem may start off as ‘self-expression’ but if it ends there I’ll know it isn’t finished. It then needs to go through some kind of transmutation so that I barely recognise how it began – as if poems are a collaboration between self and otherness; a co-operation between my own conscious intention and the will and volition of the work itself. Sappho’s Fragment 150 can be read as saying as much: ‘There must be no lamentation in the house of the Muses. Such a thing does not befit it’. Poems are an ordeal of discipline and have a mind of their own.

Picador –why do you write poetry?

Boast – As an exploration of consciousness through listening rather than through thinking. I see poetry as a way of training ourselves to be able to access what we don’t know we know, through language. Through the rhythmic play of sound and syntax you can reach something that surprises you, something you didn’t know was in your mind that enriches and broadens your perspective on the world and how to be in it. Listening comes first; having something you want to say comes last – and, in the best poems, evaporates entirely.

Here is another poem from Sidereal which won the Forward Prize for best first collection and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize. This poem with its mysterious double you (the poem/God?) is a great example of poetry as a devotional exercise, poetry as prayer:

The Hum

There is not yet a single word, but the poem
can already be heard…

– Osip Mandlestam

It takes all night to turn the page –
no offense to the poem – its image
sets up so bright a mirror
the room moves towards it, vaster

for all darkness I am leftsitting in.
By mid-morning you were fathoming
how to decant me from one vessel to another,
his to yours, replace the stopper

and drink. But what you drank was laced
with a distance, like moonlight traced
back to the moon at her most explicit,
so much so you have to listen for it

close to my mouth. Then, in that way you have
when you persist, like a siderostat,
in fixing me in your view,
what I’ve kept hidden becomes visible to you.

Rachael Boast, ibid

What an unexpected word in the poem – siderostat, meaning an astronomical instrument for seeing the sun and stars. I love that sense of the ultimate astronomer fixing Boast in his or her view so that what I’ve kept hidden becomes visible to you. This line also reminds me of the mysterious power a poem has to reveal a poet to themselves. To make visible what we is hidden from them! I see this all the time in my work with poetry in drug and alcohol recovery centers.

Now, a poem from Pilgrim’s Flower which I will be rooting for when I attend the reading for all the Griffin Prize  nominees in Toronto on June 4th. I want to boost for Boast in the international category but I am torn because Carl Phillips, the American poet who is a favourite of mine, is also nominated. But no matter who wins Boast has written another winner of a book.

Here is Boast’s poem Caritas:

(St Andrews Cathedral)

These stones speak a level language
murmured word by word,
a speech pocked and porous with loss,
and the slow hungers of weathering.

And there, in the broken choir, children
are all raised voices, loving the play of outline
and absence where the dissemblerd god
has shared his shape and homed us.

At the end of the nave, the east front stands
both altered and unchanged,
the arch like a glottal stop.

And what comes across, half-said
into all that space, is that it’s enough
to love the air we move through.

Rachael Boast from Pilgrim’s Flower, Picador, 2013

What a reminder: that its enough/ to love the air we move through. And in this confident woman’s voice, in this poem that as Gregory Orr says, becomes part of The Book (all the songs or poems ever written) I hear echoes from Jane Hirschfield’s poem Autumn Quince and from Charles Wright’s poem With Eddie and Nancy in Arezzo. And I know that through my own Siderostat another important poet has come clearly into view.

One Comment

  1. Liz
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    As always thanks for being one of my siderostats, focusing my seeing on poets and poems that I may not otherwise know.

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