Geraldine Monk - Embellishment

Capsule essay by Michael Peverett

What stands out for me about Geraldine Monk's poems is a sort of beauty that I tend to characterize as irrelevant beauty. This is a lovely example, from the end of the Monk/Donne "Nocturnall" that Melissa wrote about:

    the body must
    here body
    body must
    the body must

                   as shadow

           if we an ordinary

    an echo caught
              in looped

                                  prepare towards
                             the yeares dayes deep


It's true that this swag or curlicue or tress does represent visually the elegant turn at the end of Donne's poem. Nevertheless its joyousness runs counter to the at first glance uncompelling thematic linkages of the darkest day, war in Iraq, a Scandinavian Lucia festival, etc (which when you consider them in isolation from the poem seem both over-obvious and somehow arbitrary).

This brought to mind Monk's note on another recent poem, "Opus Anglicanum". Monk spoke there of "embroideries of such exquisite beauty and craft that England became the eponymous hero of sacred and secular embellishment." Then the next paragraph starts talking about the event that caused a huge shift in her conception of the poem, the suicide in July 2003 of Dr David Kelly.

She admitted that this was "an unlikely coupling". So it was, but I paused over the word "embellishment". Monk uses it in one of its ordinary senses of "ornamentation", but nineteen times out of twenty when you hear that word we are talking about "embellishing the truth" and it's impossible not to think about that when we are talking about the Iraq weapons of mass destruction. In the poem itself Monk uses "embroiderers" and puns on the last syllable of "petersham" with exactly this double focus: decoration, deceit.

The distinction between a plain truth and lying embellishments is problematic because we can't let go of it: it's too important when trying to plot a right-hearted course through the mires of public (or private) life. At the same time no-one more than a poet understands the desperately shaky foundations on which that distinction is founded, the questions begged by any claim of plain truth made with words. Monk's poems themselves embody a fascinating tension between a deeply felt love of pattern and ornament (in the sound, in the appearance on the page, in the performance) and a certain impatient pull towards straight talking, towards a demotic inclusiveness. She has it both ways and I believe that's how most of us get through life; on a theoretically unsound basis, but we live.

This reminds me of a favourite Monk quote, on the "death of the author" debate: "Once you do commit yourself to the public arena (small as it may be in our case) then you cannot seriously be striving for anonymity or an ego-less state.... Seems to me that the ultimate ego-less state is death which probably lasts a long time (hopefully) so why on earth anyone on earth should want to achieve it while on earth has always puzzled me – it seems a bit anti-life and definitely against the individual" (Famous Reporter 24, December 2001).

Nevertheless, the syntax that (as a weave) underlies much of her work does conform to contemporary practices that are ultimately against the author as individual. This for expository purpose is the left-hand half of "Hallowe'en Bikers", misleadingly shorn of context:

    blackened cow hides
    big roar
    hill angels
    winging sweet
    tassel thrills
    leather sweating out
    beer piss and
    stinking high warmth

(In the actual poem it rides abreast of another figure.)

Monk's syntax is impoverished because there is such an extreme reluctance to use either conjunctions or relative pronouns; because, I suppose, both too patently evince the author as controlling presence. But without either of those handy tricks, how do you avoid just ending up with a lot of extremely short sentences? One characteristic answer, as here, is to string together participial phrases ("winging", "sweating", "stinking"), catching process in the act of process: the only words in the earlier Donne/Monk quote that are Monk's own are participial ("an echo caught in looped light").

This impoverished syntax certainly has a function in itself, but it's a limited one; it's the engine-room that supplies a pulse to the poetry. However, the main thing is that it allows (you might add, demands) the intense activity of non-syntactic patterning – all that inventiveness and individuality with an effect of opulence – that we look forward to when we fall into line with one of her writings. Her art, too, is an art of embellishment. It's in that context that the local, historical, national concerns that may seem playfully criss-crossed form themselves into a more acute debate about our pardonable, pretty ways; the way we do go on.

You make me hope that I'll get around to reading poetry before I get old and die.
thank you oldhall haha if you get that intense into Fuji apples you maybe already found your poetry..!
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