Otherwise Measured / Other Ways: Selina Boan’s An Act of Distillation

Selina Boan – An Act of Distillation
2013, In/Words Magazine and Press
22 pages, $3

Selina Boan An Act of Distillation poetry chapbook

a heating device:

            expect his hand,
            her thigh,
            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[1] 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
a science


Your mouth on the slip of my wrist
a deviation

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,
bone wort
to the back of the throat

A Carleton student, Selina Boan is one of Ottawa’s most promising emerging writers[2], 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.

Selina Boan Ottawa poet reading

Selina Boan reading. Photo by Neil Voorneveld, courtesy In/Words.

JM’s Jam: Nicolas Jaar – Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust

[1] Or if you prefer the full title: The Art of Distillation. Or, A Treatise of the Choicest Spagyrical Preparations Performed by Way of Distillation, Being Partly Taken Out of the Most Select Chemical Authors of the Diverse Languages and Partly Out of the Author’s Manual Experience together with, The Description of the Chiefest Furnaces and Vessels Used by Ancient and Modern Chemists also A Discourse on Diverse Spagyrical Experiments and Curiosities, and of the Anatomy of Gold and Silver, with The Chiefest Preparations and Curiosities Thereof, and Virtues of Them All.

[2] The term “emerging writers” always weirds me out. Emerging from what? I always imagine them coming up drenched in slime from a spawning pit, like this thing.
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One Response to Otherwise Measured / Other Ways: Selina Boan’s An Act of Distillation

  1. Pingback: The Ottawa Zine Off! (Winter Edition) | JM Francheteau

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