Rachael Boast – Pilgrim’s Flower

Full Disclosure: Think I met her once at the Poetry Library? I enjoyed Sidereal, and this book was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and here we are.

Review: Pilgrim’s Flower is about walking. It’s also about churches, self-image, romance and turn-of-the-18th-century poetry. On the face of it, the book uses some of the most conventional materials poetry has to offer, and at a glance Pilgrim’s Flower might seem like a common/garden Poetry Book, with its pastoral epiphanies and domestic intimacy; that was certainly my first (bluntest) response. Once I took the time to properly focus on the poems, to follow their logical trains and recursive, self-questioning quests, the collection opened up.. That Boast quietly and carefully turns these swans and chapels into a book that feels immediately relevant, a deeply personal interpretation of life in 2014, is downright astounding.

It’s the book’s sheer weirdness, its combination of imaginative difficulty with syntactical simplicity (and vice versa), that suggests there is more depth than is immediately apparent. The first poem, ‘The Place of Five Secrets’, based on a scene from Belle et la Bête, is kitschy and theatrical, full of ‘gilded hand-held object[s]’, the ‘key, mirror, / horse, glove, and the rose at the centre of it all,’ ‘until her love’s second sight revives him as he is, // and not as others see him’. In retrospect it’s remarkably brave to set a poem so ostensibly adolescent-sounding at the head of the collection, the poet as Beast (Boast?), the reader as Belle shown ‘every fine detail’ in hopes ‘the blind world and its lack of faith’ will see the truth for themselves, all the while instructed to ignore the poet’s ego, ‘ne faut pas regarder / dans mes yeux’: ‘don’t look me in the eyes’. The poem works as entry and re-entry point, gathering meaning as the reader understands more of the poems that follow, and fully accommodating second or third readings; In its reference to Cocteau’s film it joins up to the book’s last poem, ‘Desperate Meetings of Hermaphrodites’, in which the secrets become the ‘five / points of a star’, and ‘the dripping statue, from whose mouth / all this had come, is dressing up as you’. Creepy. The first appearance, suggests Boast, cannot be the authoritative one, and the pilgrimage the book undertakes – try counting the mentions of walking, paths, feet – is far more important than its destination.

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On that note, the sheer number of other poets who walk with Boast is striking – Ciaran Carson, Sappho, Coleridge, Rimbaud, Akhmatova, Jean Cocteau, not to mention the lessons learned from MacNeice (mirrors, rivers, astonishing syntactical gymnastics) and Longley (the chapel of the short poem) – and how seamlessly they blend into Pilgrim’s Flower’s aesthetic. The book also follows Edward Thomas’s ecocentric work; in ‘The Notebook’ Coleridge gets out of his ‘jaunting-car’ and walks, ‘staying true to your allegiance / to local epiphany until nature knew / her secrets would be safe with you,’ elsewhere, in ‘Homage’, the waves ‘tell me homage means going / back to the same place until it knows you’. Boast asserts that the fixed, commandeering ego is an unsuitable, even unwelcome, poetic explorer, and although the drama of the individual poems habitually focus on the Romantic solitary figure in nature, Pilgrim’s Flower brings so many historical loners on the journey it’s hard to feel terribly alone. Place this alongside the Thomas-y sequence ‘Anon’, in which

And here’s another school, under my feet. Not a ruin
or a page from history, but the old, near earth,
the world as mirror for what’s unseen.
We can’t see by walking up and down
what we’ve sown, what we’ve dropped
into the furrows of our years
and covered over: the world’s this mirror.

If I’m getting this right, the poem (rather obliquely) asserts that solitary work, the individual monument, is not enough by itself; the world beyond the individual must intervene, and indeed must be granted by nature itself in return for the time and close attention that Boast demonstrates she has given. Maybe. Besides that the book generates enough material discussing the inherent connections between poetic, physical and architectural form (witness the book’s thoroughly secular attitude to prayer, hymns and spiritual buildings), and the reciprocal relationship between body and environment, to keep us going for weeks. The sheer thematic focus, the interweaving of idea and execution, of these poems is deeply impressive, and trying to isolate individual instances of the book’s several deeply discussed concerns only illuminates others. Homework: plot the changing significance of swans in the book (bearing in mind that a female swan is a ‘pen’).


Maybe it’s worth focusing on the character the collection returns to more than any other, the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton was a child prodigy from Bristol who grew up in the shadow of St Mary Redcliffe cathedral (which has its own long sequence in Pilgrim’s Flower), and who became so engrossed in his studies of Medieval poetry he decided to take on the persona Thomas Rowley, and passed off some of his own original work as authentic medieval documents he’d discovered. Chatterton failed to find a patron, suffered bouts of depression and took his own life at the age of seventeen. Boast focuses on the empowering nature of Chatterton’s self-construction, gives him an organic place in his environment by some beautiful lines connecting him to the cathedral, ‘your fate sealed into you like a nave / scrolling over a series of memorial stones / to a place-on-high; guises revealed not as forgeries / but the mutable self fluttering by candlelight.’ Chatterton is held up against the uncharitable and unforgivably earthbound Dr Johnson, ‘who got his backside / stuck up the winding stair of Mary Redcliffe, / playing critic to one he considered / and un-tutored provincial pauper’ in ‘The Charity of Thomas Rowley’. The periphery trumps the hub by subterfuge.

All of which might make Pilgrim’s Flower sound like a cold, calculated equation of a book, and certainly the preponderance of wan poets and lonely dales might make it sound like there’s not a whole lot of blood and guts in among the riddles. Dotted around the collection like well stocked bothys, however, are poems like ‘Aubade’, ‘After Sappho’ and ‘Redressing Marsyas’, in which the lyric is turned to a high heat and the rigid formal structure that props up the book is pushed to its limits. In this sense Pilgrim’s Flower makes better use of poetry’s formal restrictions than most in recent years, second only perhaps to Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax. Almost every poem runs on a strict meter, and very few are encumbered by its demands. The sheer flexibility of tone and content Boast displays in the book’s basic four/five-beat line is as impressive as it’s unassuming, and well worth close study.

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Tl;dr: It’s been a long time that I’ve read a book thatstill seems full of possibility, full of unexplored meaning. Though I fully accept the possibility that dense, riddling poetry isn’t everyone’s particular cup of chai latte, it’s a superb example of a technique whose strategies are very much worth learning. Pilgrim’s Flower is, at its heart, generous, inclusive and affirmative, its human relationships weird, unglamorous and real, its propositions to the present no less important for their elusiveness. I suspect I’ll be reading this years from now.


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