John Field Reviews the 2016 T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist

1 Rachael Boast – Void Studies


For the 2016 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

John concludes that ‘Reading Boast’s Void Studies is a sensual, sensory joy. Like music, it has a simultaneity of effect and presents memory and desire with intoxicating immediacy and authenticity.’


Reading Rachael Boast’s Void Studies is an intense, rewarding experience.  It’s best tackled in a few bursts – or even in a single reading – to best savour the restricted palette. To enjoy the connections between her archetypal images, it’s helpful to feel the musically rhythmic thrum of her images – doors, keys, moon and river – as they pulse from poem to poem.

Void Studies is divided into sections I and II, followed by ‘Poems of the Lost Poem’, a sonnet sequence coloured by the language of the previous sections. Boast’s notes point us to the late nineteenth century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who considered writing a collection entitled Études néantes, ‘written in the spirit of musical etudes and [which] would go beyond the temptation to convey any direct message’. Rimbaud’s name is a touchstone for the reader: in John Ashbery’s Preface to his translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, he writes of Rimbaud’s ‘crystalline jumble […] a disordered collection of magic lantern slides’ and this should help direct the reader down a relaxed, fruitful path. Sure, you’ll need to pay attention but you’re not missing something if you don’t ‘get’ it – you feel your way through poems like these. There’s nothing to ‘get’ as you watch sunlight playing across the surface of water – these poems are knocking on the door of the subconscious mind and the best thing to do is to relax.

Boast’s is a Protean, dreamlike, shape-shifting excess. Her form throughout these sections is the couplet – two parallel lines powering across the void of the white page – a fitting form for these meditations on the relationship between the physical and the transcendental.

‘Pleasant Thought for Morning’ opens with the sensual ‘Hiding your face in my neck’. Severed from the subject and main verb (‘I am’? or perhaps ‘You are’?) the poem feels disconnected and dreamlike. After the first two stanzas, as many of these poems do, Boast leaps into the abstract: ‘hiding in the space around / the space I have dressed you in // wings of hardened spirit.’ The perplexing double quality of space is present throughout the collection in the ‘parallel life’ of ‘The Glass-Hulled Boat’ and in the titles ‘Seeing Double’ and ‘Double Exposure’. Mirrors too reflect language through the collection. The wings of hardened spirit again evokes the French avant garde – this time Jean Cocteau’s ‘L’Ange Heurtebise’ (explicitly referenced in the section’s final poem, ‘Night of Echoes’). The poem resumes, ‘Angelot, a new day is here’. ‘Angelot’? A term of endearment, perhaps, – but again, a Protean image of instability as the Oxford English Dictionary lists it as, among other things, an instrument and a coin (both French and English, stamped with St Michael and the dragon). Boast’s is a sensual, transformational, transcendental poetry.

Section II opens with the ‘The Glass-Hulled Boat’, where the speaker is ‘Waking at lunchtime to a subdued sky / bemused by how the pivots of sleep // came loose’. The fulcrum is unstable – the dissolute hour of arousal and muted day points to a liminal world. The speaker thinks that she ‘saw you at the back / of the Tower Belle’, a physical enough instance of a pleasure cruiser operating in Bristol. However, the titular glass hull designates it a dream ship of drunkenness with its ‘splayed passengers’, where the poem’s ‘you’, its object, makes for the bar, towards ‘another vodka and tonic or any other /// see-through intoxicant’ – and again an image of transparency points to an altered reality.

The collection’s final section, ‘Poems of the Lost Poem’ reprise its themes and vocabulary, closing with the sonnet, ‘Coda: Lost Poem’. ‘Coda’ is another musical term in a decidedly musical collection. Reading Boast’s Void Studies is a sensual, sensory joy. Like music, it has a simultaneity of effect and presents memory and desire with intoxicating immediacy and authenticity.

John Field’s blog, Poor Rude Lines

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