Selina Boan – An Act of Distillation
2013, In/Words Magazine and Press
22 pages, $3
a heating device:
expect his hand,
the hook and swallow of bone
Poetry is concerned with using language in new ways, but our capacity to explore words is inhibited by our very expertise with their conventional usage; as Hannah Gamble puts it, “The poet’s job is to forget how people do it.” If “the average fourth grader is a better poet than you and me too” by virtue of their inexperience, how can we as (mostly university-educated or at least hideously well-read) poets lose ourselves in words enough to make ours new? One approach is jargon. If you’ve ever found yourself perplexed by a wall of technical language, you’ll know that displaced sense of being a newcomer to your native tongue, and it’s this exoticism that Selina Boan plays with in her debut chapbook An Act of Distillation.
Inspired by chemist John French’s 1651 handbook The Art of Distillation and a few judicious trips down a Wiki-hole of related research, Boan applies alchemical terminology to the depiction of physical intimacy, flowing from
Ratio of A and B
a liquid determinate
the act of preparation
Your mouth on the slip of my wrist
Like Brian Mihok’s recent novel The Quantum Manual of Style which blended the lexicon of quantum mechanics with the structure of a self-help book, Boan’s appropriation is a mostly superficial one; these poems are a sensory account of arousal and lovemaking rather than an empirical depiction of “sexual chemistry.” She locates the female body in the alchemical concept of mercury, which represents a melting, flowing life-essence; likewise in the fixity of salt, the male. (The third element, sulphur or inflammability, presumably happens when they rub together.) In the sense that alchemy persists in the contemporary consciousness, it is as a pseudo-science, and Boan uses it as such. Just as a child might learn what a new word denotes without a sufficient understanding of its typical connotations and through “innocent” usage coin a phrase of surprising power, arcane words like “spagyrical” find a lush new context in Boan’s poems.
These are sophisticated poems that turn according to their own logic, and most require a dictionary and a fairly close reading to unpack; I suspect many readers will find that this a book that first engages the ears and the mouth. Imagery of bubbling, heating and cooling, glimpsed comminglings. Moist, sliding connections of consonance and assonance. There’s a lot of tongue-fun to be had in reading these gorgeous passages aloud:
you cut hatchets of light from our silence,
listen for the thread and flex of dead air
boil to the bottle,
a spoonful of red mint,
bramble bud and evens,
to the back of the throat
A Carleton student, Selina Boan is one of Ottawa’s most promising emerging writers, and the book itself is extremely well designed. This is probably the prettiest book I can recall In/Words having put out, and is emblematic of the commitment to high quality production design that has distinguished Chris Johnson’s two terms as editor from the more zine-like approach of past regimes. Hand-bound with thread and printed on a firm, creamy paper stock, An Act of Distillation is of a similar quality to Apt. 9‘s well-regarded chapbooks, but is somehow available for a mere $3. Admirers of Anne Simpson, or fellow Ottawans Sandra Ridley (whose medical, syntactically complex Post-Apothecary seems a strong influence) and Marilyn Irwin should give An Act of Distillation a try.
JM’s Jam: Nicolas Jaar – Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust