‘Sunday’ is taken from Rachael Boast’s third collection Void Studies, which draws its ambitious impetus from the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s proposed (but unwritten) concept of ‘études neantes’. As the book jacket states: ‘Études néantes was to consist of poems written as musical études; these would not convey any direct message – but instead summon the abstract spirit of their subject.’ In addition, we are told, these are poems that ‘despite their esoteric nature are by no means “difficult” in the usual sense.’ I suppose I would push back against these guidelines to say that I value the aspect of difficulty in practice that allows for the associative deviances made by mistakes (in music and reading), rather than a kind of managed immediacy. Drawing frequently too on the persona of Rimbaud himself, the poems also shy away from the violence that surrounds him – and etudes too, I think, are violent. As a child I spent hours being trained as a pianist and there is a physically painful, and boring, process of submission of the hand that Void Studies floats away from, except maybe in ‘Album’, in which all the furniture in a room is burned, until ‘what is left is nothing but the work, / thought latching onto thought and pulling’ (my italics).
This reading then, will both take the poem out of its own context – of Rimbaud, of French Symbolism – and reinstate it, in the sense that it will be a kind of deviance that will not convey any direct message. Isn’t ‘abstract spirit’, in the end, a kind of excess that relates to Lucie Brock-Broido’s observation that her own poems do not offer a kind of therapeutic outlay but add ‘insult to injury’? Recently I’ve been thinking more about the ruthlessness of light – light as an excessive force that reaches and disturbs nearly everything, in the end. Here, this disturbance manifests in the jarring impossibility of ‘The smell of sunlight on river-water’, a sensorial confusion that instigates the ruins of water’s ‘calm mirror’ or the disruption of calm sight. ‘Sunday’, as the sun’s day, is everyday – tangentially, there are also no days from the sun’s point of view, and perhaps here ‘a day’ becomes a heightened moment of dislocation experienced through close proximity to an excess.
Trying to deflect this light, ‘Sunday’ turns quickly into more shaded states, as the calm mirror becomes in the second line the ruffled ‘calm mirror / of sleep and the disciplines of the dark’. Writers dreamily rowing around in the underworld of Nekyia. ‘The pushy oars of rowers dissemble and mark’ – and Boast is very good at this, these shifts into the going down into abysses, via her use of a couplet form that descends like steps into the heart of the poem. Giving up life-time to live in the darkness of dream-time, of turning fleshy experience into becoming shadow recorders making recordings of shadows. Ordering and unordering things. I think of my friend the artist Aaron Angell’s lovely boat that he once made called ‘Planchette’, which is named after the heart-shaped piece of wood that was used in automatic writing séances. Skimming on this planchette, further disrupting the surface-river of language flowing around the shadow world of the unconscious, the poem has the reader alongside the speaker watching the pushy rowers ‘leaving a trail of peacock eyes / in their wake while half-asleep in the ultraviolet’. These are not voyagers who are as miserable and terrified as the oarsmen in Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’, but overly confident water-boat[wo]men who are sleepily skimming across the petroleum pool of the imaginary. Peacock eyes – the watery ripples that keep expanding outwards from a marker’s touch. Peacock eyes are also unusual and brilliant, if not frightening things. Carl Jung associated them with the miracle of the cauda pavonis – an alchemical process that he used as a metaphor, a kind of rebirth of the individual, that harmonised a multitude of colours that he associated with feeling, intuition, sensing and thinking (ever-changing moods and lights). Jung: ‘The alchemists said that the appearance of the cauda pavonis, the peacock’s tail, was a sign that the process [individuation] was coming to a successful conclusion.’ But the speaker’s use of ‘ultraviolet’ complicates things here – it is of course, not a seeable colour, to us it is not a colour at all. Throughout, ‘Sunday’ is a poem of what-after (nights out and in, colours, sleep, the underworld, rebirth). What after the senses, and sense? How far can we get into the intangible and do we want to? It seems hard to escape the conclusion that we must be only ‘half-asleep’ to do so, as a protective measure.
The last two couplets in the poem seem to start to provide a resolution to this intense desire to go beyond things – Sunday is also a day of faith and many poems in Void Studies hover on, hinge on and pull away from explicit proclamations of faith. ‘I almost believe’ in the trembling, says the speaker. The trembling ‘sky’s huge blue terrace’ pushes forward with its assonance into its own space, very grand and stately. Coldly so, like all stately homes and castles with their violent and horrifying histories, of the hands that built them. But then the speaker turns, I think, not to the reader but to an undisclosed companion who is both suddenly the addressee and within the poem, and perhaps this is the real crux: ‘Trembling. I’ve seen you shield yourself from this / fabulous Chaos the day springs on us’. This ‘you’ feels more like a beloved other than another self, given the vulnerability of the ‘shielding’ and the watching of this dreaming other in the last line.
‘Sunday’, I think, is really a poem about companionship, in what sense it is hard to say, but either of a self (who has come through the cauda pavonis, and can watch more calmly its other selves), or of another reassuring presence. This companionship is a shielding mechanism from excessive abstraction. In this sense the doubling or split into doubles that occurs in the final couplets shimmers with a kind of vulnerability that is a curious property of multiplicity. How dreadfully precarious backgrounds seem to become when there are two figures in the picture – parent and child, or a pair of lovers, or best friends, or a reader taken by a writer right into a landscape with them. ‘[F]abulous Chaos’ seems out of place here, just as out of place as ‘the smell of sunlight’. Perhaps the fabulousness of it – and here fabulous turns on its own nail of fable – is derived from this generative aspect of Chaos, the ultraviolet realm of the unseen. ‘Living, one is so detached’, says one of the speakers in Alice Notley’s Voices, and Boast’s vision of ‘dreaming yourself awake in fits and starts’ suggests a solution of sorts.
To end with a further divergence – or détournement, with the sense of ‘two’ in mind – this line that quietly states the need to be only half-awake or stay half-asleep reminds me of Sir Luke Fildes’s 1891 painting ‘The Doctor’. On permanent display in the Tate Britain, it shows an anxious doctor watching a sick child in a darkly lit room, while the dawn (‘the critical time of all deadly illnesses’, as Heather Birchell reminds us in her commentary on the painting) begins to filter through the window – possibly towards recovery, possibly towards death. I can’t look at this painting without feeling something unbearable bubbling inside (to not do so brings forth the horror of the living detachment). Everything about it is excessively real: ‘fabulous Chaos the day springs on us’. And funnily enough, Rimbaud died in 1891. Maybe ‘Sunday’ succeeds in summoning an abstract spirit after all, though in a more unexpected way than the marketing blurb of Void Studies claims – these are difficult poems, just not in the way we’ve come to expect.
The smell of sunlight on river-water
in shocks and tints ruins the calm mirror
of sleep and the disciplines of the dark.
The pushy oars of rowers dissemble and mark
the surface leaving a trail of peacock eyes
in their wake while half-asleep in the ultraviolet
I almost believe in the sky’s huge blue terrace
trembling. I’ve seen you shield yourself from this
fabulous Chaos the day springs on us,
dreaming yourself awake in fits and starts.
From Void Studies (Picador, 2016). Reproduced with permission of the author.