Sidereal by Rachel Boast
Review by Ian Chung
Rachel Boast’s Sidereal is a coolly self-assured debut collection from Picador. Cool, not cold, for as the blurb on the back cover declares, ‘despite its celestial title, Sidereal is full of terrestrial concerns, the traffic and chaos of the human and natural worlds’. This may seem like hyperbolic praise coming from the publisher, but it is nevertheless borne out by the poems. To give a concrete example, let us consider the final stanza of ‘Agrarian Song’:
You’re taken with this muck under my nails,
these gardener’s hands that crackle
along your arms like flame. Plant in me
the effort of your dark songs.
In the first stanza of the poem, mention has already been made of ‘the effort of turning [the soil]’. This word ‘effort’ is repeated two stanzas later in ‘The effort of the earthworm’, setting up a parallel between the labouring of human and animal. The final stanza then moves a step further to establish an earthy human connection that is predicated upon the natural world, being grounded in the ‘muck’ of earthly existence, the tactile sensation of ‘gardener’s hands…along your arms’. The crowning achievement of the stanza, however, is its final two words, where the brevity of the line pulls against the complexity of a verb like ‘constellate’, which can simply mean to gather or cluster together. A sort of poetic shorthand, if you will, for the wider project of Sidereal, which draws together the natural, the human and the celestial, these three worlds that repeatedly intertwine throughout Boast’s collection to weave their patterns of meaning.
This desire for precision of diction is explicitly articulated elsewhere in Sidereal, e.g. ‘just as a poem / when at last it finds its true form / seems as though it’s been written before’ (‘On Reading Lowell’s Imitations of Sappho). The poem that most directly addresses this though, is the sonnet ‘Blind Date’: ‘a love of words that coincide / their beauty and their bite; that I’d call holy / but is perhaps diseased.’ There is an aural satisfaction to the first one-and-a-half lines, with their iambics that scan more or less perfectly and deft internal half-rhyme. Once again though, Boast pushes the idea further, questioning the wisdom of this predilection. For in this poem, the human interaction is judged tedious in comparison to the possibilities offered by playing with language:
I was glad to be free,
browsing for a good line I might lift off the page
until its sonic architecture maps exactly
onto my locality.
As a final point of interest, Sidereal also contains a couple of poem sequences. The four-part ‘Gabapentin’ is structured around increasing dosages of the drug, and by ‘IV. 1200 mg’, the unrhymed couplets of the earlier sections have largely vanished, replaced by a scattering of ellipses. In the case of the longer sequences, ‘The Extra Mile’ and ‘Tentsmuir’, Boast’s concern with Christian themes reveals itself. The former is a contemporary reimagining of the story of Job, told from the perspective of his wife, culminating in the searing line, ‘only we know creation is a brilliant atrocity’, while the latter alludes to or quotes from Biblical books as diverse as Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Ezekiel.
Individual poems like ‘Ruth’ and the ekphrastic ‘A View of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ also reflect this interest in casting new light on familiar Biblical narratives. ‘Ruth’ ends with the question, ‘what was it like, for a change, to go not empty away’, while in the latter poem, Boast sees Diego Velázquez’s painting-within-a-painting as potentially affirming Martha, in contrast to the Biblical story:
despite all counsel, she would seem
the least blessed, unnourished
in the simple foreground of exclusion,
yet to our eyes, she is closest,
should we wish to savour what is close;
she is the cynosure; the open invitation.
All this perhaps gives credence to Elizabeth Jennings’s claim in her 1965 book Christianity and Poetry that ‘no new [tradition] of resonance or value has been found to replace [Christianity]’, not even in the 21st century. It certainly proves a rich vein for this debut collection to mine.