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Pilgrim's Flower by Rachael Boast – review


Rachael Boast has found her writerly moment with a rich collection about place, history and relationships

Why are second collections often more interesting than debuts? Geoffrey Hill came into focus with King Log; Sylvia Plath, magnificently, with Ariel. One answer must be that the second volume is often the first to be written as a book. Unlike debut novels, first collections characteristically gather together all the new writer's best work to date: work often composed over several years. Subsequent volumes, on the other hand, expand into their own writerly moment, allowing the poet to go further and deeper with their current project and themes. This is what Rachael Boast does in her second collection, Pilgrim's Flower.

A related phenomenon is the emergence in the second book of an individual voice from an apprenticeship, often in creative writing programmes and at those publishing houses where poet-editors do work intensively on a manuscript. Tyros without this kind of good start can struggle for attention, and Boast was wise enough to study with Don Paterson, now her editor, at St Andrews. The presence of his poetic intelligence was marked in her fine debut Sidereal, particularly in the tensile strength of her sharp lyrics.

Now she has returned to Bristol and produced an altogether more expansive and, at the same time, more focused book. The debutant has matured into a confident writer taking responsibility for both meaning and beauty. "Homage" opens: "On each visit the waves would follow me down / the narrow street in sentences breaking out / of language". As if this extraordinary double-image weren't enough, the poem goes on to pun with the "home" in "homage", doing so not as an end in itself but with emotional intelligence: "homage means going /back to the same place until it knows you –". This is an easily overlooked poem of just two quatrains, its iambic pentameter lightly worn: yet the wow-wow sound of waves in the first two lines, "… waves would follow me down / the narrow …" is pitch-perfect.

The wateriness of Boast's home region makes several further appearances in her new book: as "the stark estuary of the Severn", in "the river's backflow" of "Spring Tide", by causeway, coastal path and riverbank. She mimics the river's perpetual motion in her lengthened lines and sentences, and uses water repeatedly in transformative metaphor. "The full moon river is flowing as fast as paper, / dog-eared waves and creases intercepting each other", "The Garden Path" tells us. This water is a symbol not, as so often, of the psyche but of the "floating world" in which that psyche finds itself. Elsewhere in the 14-part "The Garden Path", "The river's a mystery school. / I half expect to see a singing head / floating past the prow to break / the wave of my known world."

Water shape-sifts; and so does Boast's language, which is "sugared with riddles", as she says of an "Outlaw's Lane". From the punning title of "Three Poems after Rioja" – a homage to the effects of Spanish wine on the libido – to her easy way with reworkings of Sappho and Cocteau, Machado and the Bible, this is masterful, playful stuff. Cleverly, when she retells the flaying of Marsyas, she calls her poem a "Redressing", while the concealed god of a ruined cathedral is "dissembled". At times, the poet herself resembles the "Harlequin by the river" of her sequence about Thomas Norton, "To St Mary Redcliffe".

Norton, her notes tell us, is said to have discovered the elixir of life, only to see it stolen and the church built on the proceeds from its sale. The notes are perhaps more part of the poems than is usual in lyric verse. Without them we would often not quite know what was going on: not only in "To St Mary Redcliffe", but in a couple of poems about Anna Akhmatova. The final "General note" is a positively Patersonian piece of mystification: "Repeated references to the name 'Thomas' … were not intentional … but can nevertheless be taken as referring to Didymus, "The Twin". In Aramaic, 'Thomas' also means 'twin'." Provocations like this have a proud tradition, by way of TS Eliot's notes in The Waste Land, and are both a delight and a frustration: part private love-letter, part public display. Once Boast has mentioned twinship, we want her to explore it.

For now, though, we remain with the poet in her "camouflage of concentration / in which everything gains / the slow stealth of the same selfhood". Her terrain is rich and mutedly lyric and resembles nothing so much as a Whistler Nocturne, its vivid technique and prickling self-awareness put to the work of sustaining a particular, sensuous atmosphere. Deeply linked at aesthetic as much as thematic levels, this book creates a territory of "grey light", "edgeland", "the mutable self fluttering by candlelight".

While its first part is mostly concerned with place and history, the second takes up themes of relationship, including "love's erotesis", which is repeatedly displaced: into swans, into the lovers of Hiroshima Mon Amouror into the Song of Songs – a title Boast breaks and shares across her section break. Despite such variation, the book reads as if though composed. Readers who carp that there aren't enough people or stories in Pilgrim's Flower have failed to understand the lyric project, which without being confessional explores all the speaker's resources. The reader (or listener) is party to this intimacy and must bring their own self to bear on the poems. For all the beauty of its prosody, Pilgrim's Flower is not entertainment but something altogether deeper and more true.

• Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Coleshill (Chatto & Windus).

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