Picador poet Rachael Boast's poem Belle Époque has been awarded first prize in the Bristol Poetry Prize 2015. We spoke to Rachael about the inspiration for the poem.
'Belle Époque is one of those poems that arose from something someone said, for which several nuances presented themselves: 'What we get is a sidelong view of her'. They were reading Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir, Hope Against Hope, 'her' being the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,' Rachael told us.
'I caught the edge of that phrase, 'sidelong view', thinking, not of how Akhmatova is portrayed when she appears in the memoir, but of how she is abstracted in Modigliani's drawings of her, which are themselves also a form of sidelong view,' Rachael continued. 'Highly influential was an article in The Telegraph from April 2015 which alerted me to the ways the Italian artist's work changed after his meeting with Akhmatova in Paris in 1911. Quick to develop an intimate bond with her, Modigliani's subsequent creations often depicted long-limbed, long-necked women. Akhmatova, who was around six foot tall, visited the artist in his studio several times whilst on honeymoon.'
'In one sense the 'belle époque' of the poem refers to the era before the first world war, before the Russian Revolution, and before all the unrelenting duress that lay in store for the poet; in another sense it refers to the 'belle époque' at the start of a new relationship. The 'sidelong view', as a phrase and as a theme, meshed well with the poem, and I suspect this is because the peripheral is a key mode of vision in poetry. Sometimes we see things more clearly by not looking directly at them, just as, in the writing of a poem, one is advised to step aside a little and allow the language to play out according to its own will and volition.'
By Rachael Boast
What we're given is a sidelong view of her, you say,
meaning a view through the eyes of another on the page
of a memoir, but what I see is a woman on a couch
with raven hair tied back in contrast to the length
of her limbs and the space allowed those long fingers
softly abstracting into the white of the canvas to become
completely relaxed, as is the neck and face, the attitude
of the times, the growing need for her Parisian visits,
for hours of Egyptology, the red roses appearing on the floor
so perfectly on the day the studio was locked by mistake,
the elegance of the line from then on, each woman elongated
in the reach that desire makes towards its ideal, reaching
back to Anna, always Anna, silent woman with a memory
that holds like ice the poems of the Neva, flowing on
through small joys and terror, through marriage
and divorce, until the thaw came at last, I say,
looking over at your profile in the soft light we share,
your sensitive hands turning the yellowed page.
Read 'The Place of Five Secrets' from Rachael's 2013 collection Pilgrim's Flower.
Rachael's new collection Void Studies will be published November 2016.
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