A first encounter with Pilgrim’s Flower, the second anthology from the Bristol-based but Suffolk-born poet Rachael Boast, will not do justice to the merits of its contents. Like the memory of a first love, it invites revisiting.
Divided into two, Pilgrim’s Flower recalls the highly original voice behind Sidereal which won the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize, and to this ear anyway, will remain memorable for the vicarious explorations by Boast of quotidian themes – love and journeys – viewed through the prism of time past and present, and a visual jukebox of influences.
This is not to bottle the volume: its sources are indeed many, but what stands out for me, having visited places where he worked and lived in the South of France, is the shadow of Jean Cocteau, looming large, but never eclipsing the poet’s voice.
Cocteau was the Leonardo da Vinci of his time – poet, screenwriter, artist, theatre and film director – admired hugely by many, including Picasso, Truffaut and his lover/collaborator Jean Marais, with whom he made the oft referenced here, La Belle et la Bete, a significant film for the early architects of La Nouvelle Vague.
What Boast does in Pilgrim’s Flower, almost from the off in The Place of Five Secrets, is both review a cultural milestone like La Belle et la Bete and interpret it through the eyes of a Jungian analyst, although her language is anything but analytical.
Her interest in Cocteau, Coleridge, Akhmatova and Sappho is as practical as, one imagines, a primer on a new canvas: they are springboards, and what arises are brilliant passages from Boast, whose eye is not simply curious, but is concerned with the pathology of a thing.
From The Flowers, with the acerbity of Baudelaire, Boast closes with the observer’s recollection of a man who buys two different bouquets: ‘..never was it said with more bravado, that there’s nothing to lament, when she has the rose while I smell the scent.’ I expect too Balmerino Abbey to be anthologised in the future.
Admirably, at a time when it is in and out of fashion, Boast is quite happy to allow internal rhyme to have its day, almost as if the lyric finds its perch before the sentence is completed, and almost always with a joie de vivre. Often, her lines are remarkably beautiful:
Understand this, it’s easy:
A thousand ships in pursuit of a woman –
Who only wanted to hide her face
In one man’s embrace –
Stood no chance against the undertow.
(from After Sappho)