Desperate for Words

Poetry, prosetry, revelry, riotry

Geraldine Monk: Proper Haunted

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left hand not visible

She’s a one, Geraldine Monk. I first saw her read back in the late 90’s at a launch event for Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos anthology at what’s now the Hope in Queen’s Rd, Brighton. She stood out a bit from the rest of the crew, mostly men in poet-suits which were a slightly down-market version of the olive green suits worn by recently sacked TV-AM executives. Monk (is that rude? I don’t wanna say ‘Geraldine’) was northern, pretty strong Lancashire accent, and if I recall correctly was wearing a kind of colourful loose outfit which I associated with post-hippy-pre-punk women who probably had some pagan / feminist thing going on. I went to Lancaster University in the 80’s and it was a big look back then. She read with a gleeful and swervy attendance to the joins and skippy turns in her poetry which I think was from Angles and she did this brilliant thing of kind of conducting herself with her left hand, doing a sort of pliant flower-child kathak dance. only from the elbow down.

I didn’t see her read again until a couple of years ago at the Cambridge Women’s Experimental Poetry Conference (this archive of the event hosted by the wonderful How2: lots there – poke around) where she read from Escafeld Hangings, a long sequence about (in part) Mary Queen of Scots’ little-known internment in Sheffield. She also if I recall read from The Transparent Ones, poems from her time as writer in residence at a hospice. Again she really stood out. There’s a blocky warm presence there, equal parts welcoming, friendly, even slightly scatty, and also demanding, serious. Handler of a strangely opaque beauty, tender and respectful, inquisitive, and with a focus of attention at the level of the word that sees and makes the strangeness almost literally tangible (she’s still pulling the ductile plasms of utterance with that left hand).

The easiest way to get hold of her stuff is to get the Selected Poems from Salt. There’s also a lovely new collection Ghosts & Other Sonnets and that’s what I want to recommend. It’s effectively three separate sonnet sequences, and comes hard on the heels of Jeff Hilson’s exemplary Reality Street Book of Sonnets. In that anthology, Monk’s sonnets are probably at the more traditional end of the scale formally. They’re all 14 lines, 12 and 2. None really end-rhyme but they’re replete with internal musics, crossings and recrossings over the little baby’s-cot-sized spaces. Traditional in look maybe, but they’re still amazingly challenging and strange to get with. They’re often creepy, scary, playing dark domesticity, burnt toast, wardrobe doors redolent of something darker than Narnia, against the cold drowning death of the lost and neglected. They’re initially pretty comfortless. They remind me a little of folk songs that pit the singers place by the fire or in her bed against her lover frozen in a ditch or drowned amid the weeds. Occasionally Monk breaks cover with, for example, an overt reference to the drowning of the Chinese cockle-pickers, references to the war which play low like radio news. There’re lots of birds, seen out of windows. It’s as if the poems, the whole generous lot of ‘em are taking place on a rainy cold afternoon in a kitchen looking out at a wet garden and feeling the inexplicably haunting chill of the cruelty and loneliness and danger and vulnerability of people out there in the world, expressed almost as a character, as a ghost, something implacable. Not too far from the traditional regret and sorrow-filled poetry of the mainstream here one might think. But Monk’s amazing gift is to create such kaleidoscopically inexhaustibly satisfying poems, slyly funny, worked as a clustered brooch, full of invention, learning, music and love for people, that the poems themselves are a crippled sort of placation of the ghost. Creepy stories told against the haunted dark, and the comfort is not in the stories’ content, all drowners and dread presences, but in the materialist gratitude for the generative power of the human imagination present in full effect in the making of them. In the left-handed pulling and plaiting of the words.

Intercapillary Space’ve got a bunch of Monk links here: you could do worse than spend an idle hour or two poking around there. Then you’re gonna want the books.


Written by alanhay68

November 28, 2008 at 3:03 pm

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