Rachael Boast mediates between the past and present in her intoxicating new collection
This is a book of poetry as homage – there is even a poem with that name which offers this definition: "homage means going/back to the same place until it knows you". Caritas, a particularly pleasing poem, situates itself in St Andrew's Cathedral, where ancient stone speaks. Knowing the place means seeing its humanity. Stone is mortal, "porous with loss". Often, Boast's writing feels allied to an earlier time, made of old stone or plaited into myth (as in Herm, below).
She was born in Suffolk in 1975, won the Forward prize for best first collection with Sidereal in 2011 and offers poetry as a sort of plainsong. Yet Boast is also capable of unexpected departures, such as the moment of inspired cheek in which she likens the east front of St Andrew's to a "glottal stop".
St Andrew's is not the only threshold to detain her. The fascinating little poem Reciprocity also explores the nature of moments on the brink. Someone has been stirred into speech by her imminent departure:
"…and so delay me, flagging up
that it's thresholds we love,
that tear us apart"
A further companion piece is the beautiful The Window in which she extends the thought, observing people considering the transitory as they walk: "… as though it's easier to love the things that don't stay".
She is interested in how it feels to be a go-between in time. In Fire Door, she quotes Joseph Brodsky: "And isn't a song, or a poem… a game language plays to restructure time?" The poem traverses a Scottish landscape, "the Lomond hills like a woman sprawled across a borderline/taking in the reach of the long sky". And these surrendering hills become a clue to a pilgrimage of the heart, ending in deja vu:
"…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"
It is a thrilling narrative–Sometimes, homage means entering into the lives of poets: Anna Akhmatova, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Chatterton… This is a collection that will be best appreciated by readers who have walked similar literary paths. There is an especially sympathetic poem, Milestones, about a headstrong Coleridge walking in Scotland, which notes his irregular footwear: "…along the Great Glen Road,/regaining your liberty in burnt shoes".
But by no means all roads are literary. Just when you think you have Boast's studious measure, she bowls you over with a fresh love poem; The Garden Path, or Bolshay Fontan (about time's treachery in love), or Three Poems After Rioja – hectic, erotic and contemporary – a drive across Tay Bridge in which lovers keep the man in the tollbooth talking and create a "whiplash of lights" behind them.