Poet Rachael Boast explains the impetus behind her debut collection, Sidereal, by way of The Book of Job and Joseph Brodsky's claim that language is a game we play to re-structure time.
by Rachael Boast
Sidereal is essentially a book about time, and cycles of time. Many of the poems were written whilst writing my PhD thesis, a study of The Book of Job in relation to contemporary ars poetica. Containing some of the finest poetry in the entire Hebrew Bible, this text, over 2500 years old, had much to say about the process of poetic composition. The poetic idiom given to Job is astonishing, but the one given to Yahweh is unprecedented; the ‘voice out of the whirlwind’ pushes language to its limits with a litany of ‘making strange’.
The speeches that commence at chapter 38 are not, as many assume, a case of cosmic bullying; they are a carefully articulated poetry of dark saying, of rapidity, of quick-fire erotesis and word-play, calculated to dazzle and shock Job into a fuller comprehension of reality and the mysteries of cosmological design. If, as Joseph Brodsky has said, language is a game we play to re-structure time, then nowhere have I seen this more effectively executed, with such far reaching implications, than in The Book of Job.
On reading Brodsky’s Nobel lecture, ‘Uncommon Visage’ I began to suspect he’d had more than a touch of the Jobian shakes: ‘The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe.’ All I needed was to find evidence that he’d absorbed the story. That evidence soon appeared. Apart from referring to Marina Tsvetaeva as ‘Job in a skirt’, he has also referred to Job in a discussion of Mandelstam’s ‘Verses on the Unknown Soldier’: ‘There is almost no grammar here but it is not a modernistic device, it is a result of an incredible psychic acceleration, which at other times was responsible for the breakthroughs of Job and Jeremiah. This homing of speeds is as much a self-portrait as an incredible insight into astrophysics’. Brodsky clearly understood the implication of the poetic mode of discourse operative in Job, which came as a relief in my pursuit to make a clear-cut case for the book’s contemporary relevance.
As one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament, which belong to a long tradition of instructive literature, the task confronting Job isn’t to come up with easy answers or quick fixes, or any other form of premature closure, but to endure – endurance, or patience, being an attribute of wisdom. He forgoes ‘popular membership safety’, to use Ted Hughes’ phrase, within the Deuteronomic consensus. Conversely, the ‘comforters’ employ established views and received wisdom in their case against Job – until, that is, their mouths are stopped by Yahweh’s intercession: ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ They may have religion, but they lack faith, and lack the ability to dwell in uncertainties.
The bulk of my thesis consisted of an exploration into how this can be applied to ars poetica: rather than shutting down the writing process at a given point, the task for the poet is to stay in the gap; to keep going against the pull towards satisfaction or closure; to follow, not one’s own conscious intentions, but the will and volition of the work itself. And so, what is endured is the unpredictability of the process, the time it takes to get from draft to finished piece, and the dismay attendant on finding what one thought was finished to be still undergoing torture in the just-about-intact crucible of the imagination. Furthermore, poetry, being not simply a hobby, has a habit of taking up the whole of one’s life. Endurance then comes to have wider implications; some things need to happen in the life to happen in the poems. What Job offers us is, firstly, a sense that ‘the place of ultimate suffering and decision’, to use Hughes’ words, is a legitimate place to be rather than somewhere we have to get away from as quickly as possible, and secondly, the grounding and sobering notion of hard work, of slow progress, and proper maturation of the work: a failure of artistic nerve cannot but result in a lower standard of poetic articulation, and to avoid this, poetry must pursue the point of crisis, and weather it, going beyond what’s reliable, as Heaney says in ‘Making Strange’, and keeping the door into the dark open.
Arrested by the detail of the doubling of Job’s fortunes (from 11 to 22 thousand livestock), I found myself dividing Sidereal into two parts (although this was initially because it was fairly lengthy), and then mirroring or doubling what was in the first, in the second. On more than one occasion a phrase reoccurs as a line in one poem and the title of another. The first part contracts to a nadir (or impasse, or about-turn) and ends with a prayer; the second part expands from that nadir and begins with a prayer; and so the overall shape of the book is chiasmic, and came to resemble an hourglass, the contents of part one decanted into part two, and so on. The accumulative effect was intended to mirror the thematic sense of Sidereal, a sense of the larger structures of time and how our consciousness operates within them. Whilst I was keen for the sequencing of the collection to articulate as much as the poems themselves, this process seemed to have its own design, which took a while to swim into view. When it did, I realised I must have been looking all along through a Jobian perspicillum.
Salutations, black earth, be strong and alert,
there’s a fertile black silence in work.
– Osip Mandelstam
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