They Who Saw The Deep: Geraldine Monk, Free Verse Editions/ Parlor Press

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A major new collection from Geraldine Monk is something to celebrate. One of the very best British experimental poets writing today, she has produced a book that takes its measure of the sea and history and present-day refugee crises in luxuriant, rich language that bubbles up from the depths like an underground spring.

The title sequence, for instance, concerns the sea as both giver and taker of life; taking in the shipping forecast, the Old English poem ‘The Seafarer’ and contemporary migrations. Meanwhile, Monk is cooking in her kitchen …

 

                       

                                     

                                     After four leagues the darkness was

                                     thick and there was no

                                     light. You could see nothing

                                     ahead and nothing

                                     behind,

 

    The faraway comes near. Sea salt.

     Cracked pepper. Surface effort.

     Organic granules pour delicious

     paradox. Gravy boat. Best china.

 

 

The sequence takes in a lot of history, from the ancient world to the present, but what I like most about it is that she inserts almost chant-like verses named after the seas of the moon, which brings us into her more pagan understanding. At the end of four of the sequences in the book are codas that use phrases about the sea in various translations of the Old Testament.

Other sequences in this sea-haunted book include Deliquium about the various meanings of that obscure but deliciously-sounding word, abandoned goddesses, and Morecambe Bay. Inevitably, that leads to memories of the Chinese cockle-pickers, not to mention quicksands and its reputation for very sticky ends and drownings. But she talks also of the seaside resort and its “salt and vinegar air”, the B ‘n’ B with its “lumpy bed. No soap.”, and the sheer, bleak beauty of the sea:

 

    The Lune Deep is a marine canyon running from

     Fleetwood to the Bay. Ice Age scar tissue. Miles of

     deep throat vertiginous reef cliffs. Tumbledown flora.

     Configurations with eyes. Spiracles.

     A wonderworld beneath our wonderworld.

 

 

This collection also contains a trio of moving elegies to the poet Bill Griffiths, who was a close friend of Monk’s. They were part of the same experimental poetic milieu, seeing poetry as a site for the exploration of different registers and syntax, of forgotten words and history and a carnivalesque approach to language. There’s a wonderful music to her poems, and the last poem in the collection is in fact a script for use by the “anti-choir” Juxtavoices, which uses poetry and a modern improvisational music approach to the traditional choir.

The publication of a new collection by Geraldine Monk is always an event. Her readings and performances are legendary, and if you get the chance, see her soon. This is definitely going on to my “favourites” list of books for this year.

Steven Waling

 

 

Geraldine Monk, They Who Saw the Deep, Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press £10

 

 

 

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