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Steve Spence

"They Who Saw the Deep" by Geraldine Monk. 94pp. ISBN: 978-1-60235-816-4

Geraldine Monk’s poetry is always singular; she comes at things from an unusual angle and the angle is forever in flux. Here she takes the ‘now cliched’ poetry of the shipping forecast, giving it fresh life in a collection which embraces the legends of ancient Mesopotamia alongside an exploration of her own ancestry and the emergence of mass migration in the wake of global violence. Refugees and sea journeys are central aspects of this volume, where the politics are both fundamental yet approached obliquely and always in the service of a poetry which has sound and experiment at its core. She manages to combine delightfully colloquial utterance with mini-commentaries which explore and provoke and suggest, bringing the historical record into contemporary reality. The poets she most reminds me of in this arena are Bill Griffiths and Maggie O’Sullivan though as I’ve already suggested her work has a distinctive feel which is ‘all her own’.

The following consecutive extracts from ‘Dogger. Fisher. German Bight. Humber.’
give some indication of the method which mixes clipped narrative with quotation with a more playful exploration of language:

          A time after the island of
          Thera blew itself to kingdom
          come choking life out the
          sea people of the deluge
          appeared off the coast of
          Refugees from Atlantis.
          Homeless Minoans. Unnamed
          swabbers stiffening into myth.

                                   After three leagues the darkness was
                                   thick and there was no
                                   light. You could see nothing
                                   ahead and nothing

          Brick red sweet potatoes glow
          in the encircling gloom.
          Edible terracotta. Greased Pyrex
          inflamed with love and
          wanting. Filthy weather.

In ‘Deliquium – Four Definitions Between Crete and Canterbury’ – there’s a hinting at a dictionary definition aspect – ‘(literary) – A languid, maudlin mood.’ – which sets up a backdrop of ritual, comically undermined by a mixing of classical reference with the colloquial here and now:

          There are more seabirds in landlocked
          Sheffield than on the coast of Crete.
          More waterspouts in Canterbury
          honed by our stonemasons
          bestowing our nowadays
          with lucrative

Souls of gurning Gargoyles circle. Ingest.

Gisuz-a-hug luv
          for crying out steeped in
          stone shedding half a
          head in a right bit of
          bad butchery
          beneath the

Her mixing of vocabularies: eg. the occult with snippets of literary quotation, set up resonances which stick in the mind yet make you chuckle with their ludic swiftness of movement:

          Malfeasance in office.
          Occulted vision.

Put out the light and
          then put out the
          fight against
          sudden dips into

          where the hell am I?

This could be from Othello or it could simply be an instruction and the rhyme (light/fight) tips us into another place altogether where it’s a matter of the reader ‘colluding’ with the writer in a sense of discovery. The final ‘stanza’ in this poem (rare) is simply charming: ‘Hot yoghurt / tart. Stone cold / pudding. / Walnuts on / ice.’ The poem seems to be obliquely commenting on its own construction – ‘bestowing our nowadays / with lucrative / heritage’ – while including an historical patter which becomes part of the present. Monk is in the ‘here and now’ while embracing a whole range of past experiences and does so in a manner as much reminiscent of Spike Milligan as an historical narrator. I was recently listening to Desert Island Discs where the poet Liz Lochhead was giving her views on how poetry works upon us and I’d love to know what she makes or would make of Geraldine Monk’s work. I may be misjudging this because I used to enjoy Lochhead’s work, though I haven’t read her for a long time, but her definition of technique in aid of narrative seemed a little narrow to me and certainly not the only way to come at things. Geraldine Monk’s poetry is certainly strange but more expansive, open and rich than a lot of mainstream writing. There’s much more in this collection to explore, experience and ponder and I hope you have as good a time doing so as I did.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017