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by Rachael Boast
Picador, £6.99

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reviewed by Judi Sutherland

The winner of the 2011 Forward Prize for Best First Collection is bright like the stars, dark like the cosmos.

Sidereal astronomy uses a time scale based on the Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars, rather than the little local conflagration of our own sun. Similarly, sidereal astrology is a slightly different variant from the one we are used to (which would make me into a Gemini rather than a Cancer). The depiction of classical constellations on the cover of this collection encourages us to include the astrological sense of the word, while the title implies that all is not as we might expect. Rachael Boast’s fixed points are not those that are familiar to most of us.

Is there, or is there not a spiritual persona at the core of the collection?

All through the poems, we encounter the cosmos. From the opening poem, ‘Human Telescope’, about the fragile mental state of Coleridge, Boast sets up her theme; her language is full of planets, stars, darkness and moonlight. Boast addresses Coleridge, suggesting that the hugeness of the universe is ‘allowing you the space to consider / how change and sameness, concurrent, / might absolve you’. This relationship between the universe and the human is Boast’s poetic territory. It’s Big Picture stuff.

It also becomes apparent that the cosmos is to be used as a navigational aid, with references to the compass, longitude, travel. Boast, we are told in the preface, divides her time between Bristol and Scotland, and both those places are strongly evoked, along with her Suffolk birthplace, Northumberland and the Lake District. Boast uses journeys to explore place, and how it affects us, as well as to ponder the universe and where we fit in. In ‘Other Roads’ the breakfast table becomes a map: ‘the lines and echo-lines of its oak / unknot from growth marks; / small dark tellings of things / that happened against the grain’. Boast talks about the sense of freedom as she drives into Northumberland, where the early Celtic church thrived: ‘some clean change claimed me / Down from the throat into the rib-vault’. Like the Romantic poets before her, Boast’s landscapes have a metaphysical dimension. Not only the skies, but the whole of nature is an inspiration, and the source of her most vivid phrases. ‘Agrarian Song’ is about working in a field or a garden where ‘I pulled at horsetail. The hurt earth’s / claim on it seemed intricate. ‘Falls of Inversnaid’ offers a description of ‘the lift and fall of the water / the let-be and lintel of light.’

There’s also another influence which is present, but only obliquely discussed, and that is Boast’s religious faith. ‘Ruth’ is based on a stained glass window. Boast asks the figure of Ruth, who is shown as a poor immigrant from Moab gleaning barley:

about the dark stain of tears and sweat on the fabric
of your dress, the sprain of the mile by mile
stretching your exilic limbs for those lengths
the widowed have always taught
will be worth it, one way or another, in time.

‘The Extra Mile’ is a long poem based on the Book of Job, which itself is a treatise on the nature and utility of suffering. In this poem, Job’s wife is the subject, and the question of why the good and the innocent suffer is even more pertinent to her than to her husband, who is being taught humility by God. She asks ‘Does he… not see / how hard a part I’ve played in this fiasco?’

Job and Ruth are both subjects who might be contemplated by more secular poets, but in ‘Balquhidder Road End’ we learn that Boast’s involvement with faith is deeper. She has been in a religious meeting:

the circle of chairs, chapter and verses
Blu-tacked to the far wall.

Renouncing the alphabet, I left the retreat.

But Boast’s quotation from Coleridge at the opening of the book mentions ‘Lank space and scytheless time… Not marked by flit of shades’ so is there, or is there not, a spiritual persona at the core of the collection? I’m left feeling unsure; he can only be glimpsed from the corners of our eyes.

Another un-named presence is the ‘you’ to whom many of the poems are addressed. I’m assuming it is the same man who appears most poignantly in ‘The Long View’:

After a last late breakfast, leaving
My lover to his renovations, meaning
I was out and she was in

The delineations between this elusive second person and a deity are sometimes blurred, as in ‘Hum’:

And that’s when the hum begins, suffusing the room
in the same way the face, when it communes
with the cup, disappears into it
a moment in which we are only our lips.

After the first reading I was left with a rather monochrome impression of this collection, to match its cover. The degree of abstraction in the poems and the oblique references to the things that matter make the book feel elusive, though very complete within itself. I had been hoping for a more direct appeal and for a poem or two to stand out as unforgettable. Unfortunately, the poems which did stick in my mind after first reading (‘Peace and Plenty’, and ‘Gabapentin’) were those which coincidentally covered subjects close to me, rather than those with the most profound insights to convey.

With slow re-reading, the quiet thoughtfulness of the poems, and their subtle relationships with each other, began to slide into focus. Boast is taking very seriously the requirement for a poet to live the examined life. She carefully sifts memories for meaning, she considers the universe from the vastest to the smallest scale, and asks us to spend time in contemplation with her. Ultimately it is time well spent.