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SUBSTANTIAL THOUGHTS: Review by Scott Thurston
NOCTIVAGATIONS
by Geraldine Monk, 119pp, £10.95, West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 1HN.

And in coming over it overcame. Shad. But blue. But.
But brilliant. Waterskin in Landlock. Shad-skein.

                   [from ‘The Gathering’]

So opens Geraldine Monk’s latest book, a selected volume of work written since the mid-1990s. The range of material presented here is quite extraordinary, ranging from the lyric to the dramatic whilst taking in alternative travelogues of European cities, epistolary (via email) and narrative forms. But throughout the whole, the dominant concern seems to be that of the enabling tensions between sound and sense in poetic language, putting Monk’s work firmly in the company of writers such as Bill Griffiths and Maggie O’Sullivan, although some of the work here also suggests connections to the poetry of Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth and Iain Sinclair.

Monk’s recent poetics text ‘Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transsubstantiation of the Text’, offers a succession of takes on the various ways in which one can relate to a poem: ‘Unvocalised (private)’, ‘Vocalised (private)’, ‘Vocalised (public)’, ‘Voca-visu (orientation)’ and ‘Fused Sonics (interaction)’. These provide a rich set of starting points for approaching Noctivagations. Whilst no stranger to Monk’s impressive presence in the performance of her work, my attempts to vocalise the texts constantly led to trip-ups, indicating something of the sonic complexity of these pieces. I settled therefore into unvocalised readings, where I find my mind’s ear quicker and more flexible than the tongue in coming to grips with the sound world of these poems. Monk however, seems down on this approach – suggesting that it leads to ‘Unstretched organs / Sonic un ?temporal nuances subsistent. / Inflexion depopulated. / Accentuation dis?embodied’. However, such a reading is more ambivalently valued in the suggestion that ‘The act of reading inquiet is cerebrally absolute’. Taking my cue from that unstable ‘inquiet’, the conflict expressed as ‘Sonic v Semantic’ under Monk’s ‘Fused Sonics’ section, also seems a rich furrow to pursue. Although Monk is addressing the nature of her collaborations with musicians (for a taste of this try her collaboration with Martin Archer available on the CD Angel High Wires) this seems a useful figure for the tensions that animate this book.

As an unvocal reader my ‘Eye-orbs fly-wink’ over the page, taunted and haunted by the text’s attempts to score that aurality into the paper. The sequence ‘Songings’ (the subject of Monk’s collaboration with Archer) resonates with lyric moments of visionary power; below is one complete section:

Carved in the heart
a rusting ring-

serpent split

eternity.
your image turns to
arctic flakes
such craving
burnt the trusty tree.

The use of subtly patterned alliteration and assonance in these lines generates a cohesion which balances the tension between sound and meaning. There are other places in the book, however, where the sound-play threatens to overturn this poise: ‘blotted out / and wotted / not what to do’, ‘Uncomic a arrow h h arrow / h ar hrow / HARROW. Uncomic harrow’ [‘Fluvium’] and where punning such as ‘terror terra firma’ [‘La Tormenta’], and ‘pan- / ache / on a panic-picnic’ [‘Inanimate Moves’] almost takes over. At their most extreme these excesses are translated into the actual appearance of the text with changes of font and layout to underscore this energy. This unbridled play – a vigorous testing out of boundaries – characterises the overall tone of this collection.

Where Monk’s writing really works for me, however, is when the poise returns and the poems assert themselves in their own world, without feeling the need to mime this one ‘where the world drops awa / y’. Instead ‘words shirk desired objects’ and one is offered idea-knots: ‘invisibly replete tied / bright with parallels’. This last line ends the poem ‘Dream Drover’ and feels like a key to the whole. The repleteness of Monk’s work is perhaps all too evident but is there another invisible structure behind, parallel, holding the line against the utter chaos these poems taunt and court? As suggested elsewhere, ‘It takes a robust mind / to keep inanimates in place’ [‘Inanimate Moves’]. In the meantime I’m solicited by turns and blasts; seduced by some, overwhelmed by others’ intentions and attentions and, in others still, poised in a holding position for truly righteous (riotous) thinking, singing: ‘you needn’t hold back / to see clearly ahead – / hey ho!’

          © Scott Thurston 2002