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Derick Varn explores musical poetry.

Rachel Boast, Void Studies,  (Pan Macmillan, 2016), 80 pp.

To say Rachel Boast’s Void Studies resists any notions of completion may be a bit of an understatement. The formal and thematic conceits of the collection stems from Arthur Rimbaud’s  uncompleted Études néantes which were to be purely musical poetry that uses words and images but does not limit the sound for the temptation of obvious meaning.

This collection was deservedly shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2016, but it will frustrate more casual readers of poetry because the poems feel more like fugues than études.

void studies

Boast is no stranger to notoriety having won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2011 with SiderealVoid Studies, however, is markedly different from both its conceit, and its formal constrains. Each étude is composed of five two-line stanzas reflecting the brevity of the musical composition for which they are named.  Boast uses these stanzas to create moods which are immediately accessible even if the poems forgo narrative. One can see the advantages of such formal constraints by looking at the effect it has on an entire poem such as “The Call”:

Stepping through the last of the sky

held by half-asleep mirrors

of the rain storm along the path

by the river where over

the other side the trees uphold

a language picking away

the fabric of reality, the woods

rising with everything to say

at once, with black wings,

with sound shuffling the air.

What one notices is that the constraints make the fugue-like mood accessible by limiting it to impressions.  For a collection with such a possibly obscure constraint as deliberately avoiding narrative meaning, Boast’s work remains totally accessible and unpretentious whilst remaining fundamentally strange.  “Half-asleep mirrors” is an arresting image, but one that is both familiar in its language and strange in its imagery.  The line “Trees uphold/ a language picking away//the fabric of reality” pairs familiar images and even phrasing in an alien juxtaposition to create an impossible image. This pattern can be seen throughout the work, and is particularly prominent in the first section of the collection.

Boast uses progressive forms and natural imaginary in a dream-like manner,  but it is important to know that the poems use of form makes the present of the poems seem eternal and this is furthered, not dismissed, by the presence of trees, birds, and the foliage and fauna of daily life that themselves seem, in a way, timeless.  The sensation of reading the poems is of displacement more than estrangement—of bewilderment in the positive sense with a focus on the “wild” in the world contained by the short lines.

Boast is particularly interested in the “the margins of things” (“Flash of Lighting”) and the incomplete or frustrated. Letters are unopened ( “Afterlife”) and unsent (“Heat Wave”). Boast maintains this into the third section, “Poems of the Lost Poem,” where the études give way to sonnets but the juxtaposing of language and the frustrated and chilly images persist which ends, like many musical compositions, with a Coda.

Furthermore winter looms throughout the work. In this poem, aptly titled “Snow”, Boast has the reader deal with the loneliness implied in winter:

 As though it had waited all year in the wings

of a sleep-eyed white angel to fall

and did so in an hour, assured of its own

answerless light cast across the garden,

while ice crystals melt from the bright lettering

upheld in the trees overnight,

everything is lost to the river’s deep lay

and to the low note sustained in its shadows,

the roads give and take nothing,

and you can’t get home, although you’re home.

Incredibly lyrical, and yet pristine and contained like snow.  Winter seems like the place of dreams and contrasts with the motion implied in Boast’s choice of progressive verbs. Even here, in this seasonal motif, there is a juxtaposition between image and language.

Boast echoes the symbolist poets aim to get beyond language and beyond narrative in purer semiotics, but she also doesn’t completely resist comprehensibility or accessibility. Instead, she frustrates those notions, and in doing such creates a mood for the reader to inhabit and feel instead of worlds for the reader to understand.


C Derick Varn is a teacher, poet, and theorist living in Cairo. He is a reader for Zero Books and the editor of the online literary magazine, Former People.  His poetry has appeared in Axe Factory, Writing Disorder, Union Station, and Unlikely Stories.

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