Maximum context; minimal syntax.
By Peter Riley.
ANGELA LEIGHTON IS concerned, as a poet, not to leave people in the dark about where the poetry comes from, and thus where it stands, but to indicate quite fully the scene, the occasion, the conditions and indeed the life, which engendered the poem. This does not mean a lot of “background”; it means securing relationships between different pieces and across different genres: poetry, prose, and translation, which tie the whole book together in a unity which incorporates its diversities.
Her book Spills is in three sections. First, there are sixteen stories or prose pieces described as “semi-fictional” which are a series of episodes and memories of her own experience from childhood to adulthood. Although we are warned against reading them as entirely factual the effect is very much one of authenticity, the credibility of the circumstances enforced by the appearance of recognisable figures such as her father, the composer Kenneth Leighton, who presides over many of the scenarios. Without violating credibility, they are crafted to the point where each one is felt as a completion and the ensemble as a collection of necessary memories: events which could not be forgotten or set aside. That is to say they are good, satisfying stories, gripping at times, which add up to a piecemeal biography of significant experience, that which clings, enfolded in a particular and recognisable milieu.
The prose sets the field of the book as basically that of direct experience within a given world. I mean there are not going to be exhortations on behalf of visionary linguistics or political messiahs or the world turned upside-down, though there are poems of the Christian narrative. There is no wild self or wild anything else going around causing mayhem and you could say that the class context is taken for granted, which I find refreshing among so much vaunted underdog resentment and claimed priority as we get now.
The stories form a kind of preludial context for the poems, which form the greater part of the book by a narrow margin; when we reach the poems we know where they come from. Not that there are any take-ups of incident or place as far as I can see; it is the prose as a whole and the completion of its parts which connects the poems, which are mostly meditations on particulars, to senses of world and passage — or rather highlights such senses as they inform the poems in the end.
Leighton’s poetry is discursive, steady, focused, purposive, primarily descriptive starting from a particular, often an object, and working towards a conclusion which is neither general nor abstract; everything remains within the framework set at the start, and the conclusion is quite formal, a rhythmically decisive gesture which clinches the particularity or typicality of the subject. Rhyming comes and goes but there is often a final couplet. There is a strong sense of the poem as an ensemble of resources all focused inwards towards the central experience , and thus contained by its own properties. I feel there is sometimes a strain in getting started which produces the conventional opening query, rhetorically asking, “What is this thing we have here now?” The poems are all in some way addressed, and I think the best are those which stand squarely before the reader and state their case without hesitation, such as “Dump” and “Lines at Break of Day”, which begins
So quiet, now, in early slanting sun,
the day so young we might not have happened yet,
the garden clear of us, history unbegun.
The clauses in this sentence are expertly and sensitively weighed against each other phonetically, and serve to ensure a sense of calm and continuity over their conceptually violent, or even apocalyptic content (“clear of us”) — and goes into a sustained meditation/description of widespread floating spider silk, with a subdued hint at lines of verse: “lines, like tiny consistencies crossing the gap / between this and that — lines that carry, connect / and seem like nothing…” (Both poems, as it happens, reference Isaac Rosenberg in the epigraph, perhaps indicating the kind of English ancestry in which she would place herself, namely a non-occult one).
This voicing of the strength of the ephemeral is central, and there is a noteworthy consistency in echoing her own phrases from poem to poem bearing diverse messages. Among the next few poems, for instance: “I’ve written all my life along narrow lines / rules that show the way from this to that…”; “Between this and that, an ox and an ass, / chanced at twilight in the solstice cold….” The title-word “spills” is everywhere in all its various meanings, including associates such as “spells” and “splinter”, which initiate the poems on Christ’s passion. It is her figure of the writing enterprise, especially in the game called “spillikins” — slight, narrow, barely noticed things which call out to each other and circumscribe a wholeness. The poems also seem to be set in a progression which I can’t define, but I repeatedly notice quite incidental terms or images which anticipate the next poem, specially noticeable as the religious poems approach.
The final section consists of translations of 19 poems from the Italian of Leonardo Sciascia, best known as a novelist. The poems are interesting, succinct and rich in metaphor, but I find the presentation strange. Each poems gets two facing translations, the first a fairly literal version which conveys “sense and syntax line by line”, the second a free version to regain the “rhythm of poetry” lost in the first version. These latter are all shorter than the original poems and in them description and discursion lose priority in favour of image, rhythm, compression and isolation. The strange thing is that the originals are no more discursive and descriptive than her own poetry is, and in fact she could have given her own poems the same treatment, reducing them to a purer sense of the “poetical” — but I’m glad she didn’t.
GERALDINE MONK’S POETRY clearly belongs in the “innovative” box, mainly for its free-ranging attitude towards the logic of syntactical structure and its blanket oppositional stance, which here is directed against the biosphere itself (in the shape, or shapelessness, of the sea) as much as human institutions and their controllers. She is held to no kind of correctness or conceptual consistency, and certainly would never permit herself any of the poised explanation and evening-dress self-pleading which hangs forever over English poetry; she is not in the Larkin tradition, in fact the only ancestral English presence I sniff is an occasional suggestion of Dylan Thomas. For her, in fact, poetry represents a wide range of forms of utterance which share the same space: passionate declarations, narratives of wrong, memories and diaries, lists of entities, ranked names from almost anywhere, stutters and shouts, lyrical splinters, biblical verses… What holds it all together is firstly a strongly vocal tone (which makes her a good performer of her own work): everything is thrust out as if rhetorically. And secondly she has large-scale themes or projects, in this case the sea and the sea’s dangers, which she ransacks for narrative, scientific, anecdotal, political and social source material and which is nominally reproduced in the poetry.
In spite of the stress (as declared in Cusp, the anthology of poets’ statements which she edited in 2012) on liberation from all the constraints of post-war academic theory, middle-class culture, “rigid conformity of thought” etcetera, which are seen as dominating English poetry up to the 1960s, and claiming a position not miles away from “beat”, much of the writing in They Who Saw the Deep is strongly involved in formal structuring. Probably she would not call it “form” but “patterning”, and it is true that there is very little cognizance taken of ancestral lyrical or discursive forms. Nevertheless it is form, and as such it determines the shape and sequence of most of the poems. The most substantial item, a set of 21 poems bearing the same title as the book, clearly follows a set of rules. The first 20 poems consist of ten longer poems (30-33 lines) each followed by a poem of 5 lines plus a tag. The titles of the longer poems all consist of three or four of the zones of the British shipping forecast in correct order clockwise from Viking. The titles of the short poems follow the formula “Sea of [xxx] Shanty” with different imaginative terms filling the hiatus in each poem.
The longer poems are themselves divided into 6 or 7 sections of 6 to 8 lines each, mostly following a regulated sequence, beginning with a short version of a shipping forecast, always forecasting bad weather. Then there are two or three sections deriving from the zones mentioned in the title but encapsulating disasters of many kinds involving the sea. Then a section inset and in italics which reads—
After [one league] the darkness was
thick and there was no
light. You could see nothing
ahead and nothing
These are all the same except that “one league” in the first instance mounts numerically to “ten leagues”. The last two or three sections are free-er in content but generally begin with the poet working in her kitchen as if beset by a sea-storm of modernity (brand names, power suppliers etc.) and end with an apocalyptic invocation of storm and disruption, always naming one bird species. These birds are just about weathering the storm.
The little shanties are also strictly ordered. They are extravagant little lyrics, ecstatic chant-like rhapsodies invoking sea-trouble in a more personal and also widespread theatre, sometimes principally phonetically determined. There is a rule that the word “very” must occur at or near the end of each shanty. Each is followed by a tag of four nouns stepped down, scientific names of substances. I thought at first that these were the names of metallic elements found in sea water, but I don’t think they are.
The whole set of 20 poems is followed by a coda consisting of a page-full of repetitive long lines like Biblical verses repeating an action of flight and settlement far away, “If I rise on the wings of dawn…”, with gradual verbal variation. Three of the other sets in the book have codas following the same pattern.
I have gone into some detail to show how very consciously structured this poetry is, as against the free rhapsody which might be expected — though you could not call it strict, because the rules are not always followed precisely (the compulsory “very” for instance, is missing on one occasion). But the free rhapsody is still there, for that is what fills the spaces created by this structuring, when they are not taken up by predicted technical information or related word lists. It is all personal impressions and utterances governed by the prevailing sense of sea-threat and storm, floated free of explicative structures but made to share space with completely impersonal notations of physical reality, the whole filling the apertures of a rhythmically patterned plan. But of the eight sections of the book, several are smaller and unitary things, normal “poems” in fact, deeply involved in the free play of language across a wide resource of vocabulary, insistently minimal in syntax.
I think some of them are highly successful, perhaps chiefly those in which we are not confronted with the materials of the American pseudo-epic, heaps of terminology etc., for her aims are different. By casting the discourse into distinct and mostly short lyrical “pockets”, she releases her talent for a wildly extravagant writing, which absolves her from high discursive ambition while the poetry contacts the world at many points simultaneously.
The writing does not bear a missionary thrust, is not a programme to change the course of the world. It is a subjective response to perception of widespread harm and trouble, folding natural and man-made problems together and unfolding that into diurnal experience, always from a position of defiance.
This is a stodgy review of a book interested in language as sparkling, sturdy, personal-political, risk-taking, modern-ancestral, shouting and whispering, essentially a function of the human voice raised against wrong but freely theatrical. It has on occasion something in common with the tradition of northern stand-up comedy. The title-sequence works well, mainly by the intervention through the various apertures of intriguingly inexplicable spell-like episodes, especially in the shanties.
Sea of Tranquility Shanty
Isobar brought her mouth close to heaven.
Isotherm brought her mouth close to earth.
Ishtar brought her shroud close to horizon.
Water of life. Coral. Mermaid’s purse lips.
Coracle. Sail away. Very away.
Both the invocations and the chemical terms become witches’ sea-spells.1 Indeed spell-casting might well characterise Monk’s poetry, which thrusts its accusations at the world singularly and defiantly without the connective histories of a more intellectualist writing. She relies on character and performance and perhaps sheer will-power. This does at times produce difficulties: not the impenetrable syntactical knots of much modernist poetry but an outflinging of diverse words with which it is difficult to connect, so there are static blocks, or we get somewhere but nothing happens beyond that;2 and in one case a strangely brutal ending to a short poem about confrontations with animals.
I think the most likeable performances are those such as “Three Versions of Three Ships” — three substantial poems so closely echoic as to be like three attempts to write the same poem. Here she does take on the charm and mystery of true lyric, (“our shadowy Word World” as she says) and gives a convincing staging of pleasure in writing these complaints and promises. The loss of a substantial or communal lyrical voice is voiced lyrically — “Who learned our carol and carried it away?”
So there goes Geraldine Monk, like Boudica on a cliff-top, or Canute telling the sea what’s what in best Lancashire.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- Ishtar is not the only Mesopotamian deity to occur in these shanties. This one coherently associates meteorological and mythological terms concerning a threateningly calm sea and the dangers of desire: “The fickle goddess (Ishtar) treated her passing lovers cruelly”. ↩
- At the end of the book there is an account in collaboration with Alan Halsey of a visit to the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire (surely the unhappiest stone circle in the British Isles) which spends too much time playing with names off the local OS map in a way which to someone who knows the area well, amounts only to “we were here”. The play involves a “Hermit’s Cape” which must have morphed from the Hermit’s Cave which actually is at precisely the spot indicated, one knows not why. ↩