Metablethers of Getha

by Francis Presley


Geraldine Monk
West House Books, 2001, 118pp.


Noctivagations brings together most of Geraldine Monk’s writing since Interregnum in 1994 and her selected poems, The Sway of Precious Demons in 1992.  It is important to stress totality of her work, which is sometimes overlooked in reviews, especially as this partiality is often experienced by women writers. [1]  Moreover, much of Monk’s work has appeared in small press editions, which may be out of print or difficult to obtain. Any reading of Noctivagations should, therefore, be carried out in the context of the earlier writing, of which it is both development and reprise.  One example is her playful return to the work of the Spanish artist Goya in La Tormenta, reminding us of one of her most influential early sequences “La quinta del sordo” [2]:

We cannot believe
our very-eyes oh yes our
very-eyes we cannot believe
Sopa Goyesca La Quinta
creps del sordo
vegetal in season

If Goya is the menu, he is also the heart beat of the poem, in the repeated sound of ‘chin’chin’, recalling his name for the bourgeois: ‘chinchilla’.

Another significant aspect of Noctivagations is the promotional blurb on the back: one quote is from an experimental poetry magazine, Object Permanence: “Eerie, violent… an exhilarating flux of human-animal-alien corporealities approximated in language”, and the other is from the Yorkshire Post: “genuine word magic… a wonderful poet: revelatory, intense, ever surprising”.  By choosing these extremely diverse admirers of her work, Monk seems to be making the statement that she wants her work to cast as wide a spell as possible: for it to be enjoyed both by the avant-garde and by a much wider audience.  She wants to break out of the marginalisation of the experimental, not into the mainstream of British poetry, who will continue to marginalise her work, but directly to anyone who may hear or read her.

There are those in the avant-garde too who will regard this as impossible, or who might declare with Keith Tuma that Monk’s must be ‘expressive’ rather than ‘difficult’ poetry:

And the first thing to be said about Monk’s poetry is that while it does not use the ‘dominant modes’ of expression, neither is it difficult.  Playful, rhetorical, feminist, it can also be as ‘expressive’ as an insult. [3]

Yet Monk’s poetry is both expressive and difficult, in the sense of experimental and abstract.  It is as expressive as a Goya:

Le Goya: un écrasis de rouge, de bleu et de jaune, des virgules de couleur blanche, des pâtés de tons vifs, plaqués, pêle-mêle, mastiqués au couteau… C’est le vacarme le plus effréné qui ait jamais été jeté sur une toile… [4]

The debate about women experimental poets and ‘expressive’ modes of writing continues to raise its head.  Clair Wills defined it, in a much-quoted essay, as a false polarisation of formal experimentation and expressive elements, and also of the private and public spheres:

Thus it is not that ‘expressive’ poetry naively falls back on a stable individuality, and experimental work explores the radical absence of subjectivity.  Both are responses to the reconfiguring of the relationship between public and private spheres which makes the ‘private’ lyric impossible, and in effect opens it out towards rhetoric. [5]

She has also analysed how the ‘expressive’ female self is still present in the work of experimental women poets.  It seems to me that a lot of experimental male poetry is intensely expressive, or emotional, but generally within a socialist framework.  As a result male reviewers can appear more comfortable with Monk’s ghettoblaster sequences than with her female self.  The problem with ‘expressiveness’ in female experimental poetry often has more to do with feminism than any form of rhetoric. 


Noctivagations is divided into nine sections: The Transparent Ones; Trilogy; Songings & Strangerlings; Dream Drover; Hidden Cities; Two Dramatics; Fluvium; Three Short Sorties; and Nine Little Ones.  I wrote a brief review of Dream Drover when it was originally published, and which appeared in How2, February 2000.  Of the nine sections, I think that the most interesting development of the experimental and the expressive can be found in ‘The Transparent Ones’ and ‘Two Dramatics’, with its radio drama ‘Manufractured Moon’.

‘The Transparent Ones’ was originally a performance work called the ‘Metablethers of Getha’.  The change in title is a more accurate description of these texts, as the first version could be applied to all of Monk’s work.  “Metablethers” is a wonderful neologism which also appears in ‘Fluvium’ — some of the most experimental work in Noctivagations.  It combines the old English/ Scots word ‘blether’ or blather, meaning to talk loquacious nonsense, with the multi-purpose Greek prefix ‘meta’.  It combines Monk’s use of sound and nonsense poetry with a very rooted use of dialect.   She is both in the locale, the dialect, and rising above it, transmuting and experimenting with it.  The name Getha is evidently one of Monk’s pseudonyms, and is used as such in the radio drama ‘Manufractured Moon’.  It begins with the first two letters of her Christian name, but ends in something suggestive of the East, and other spirits.  This is not invalid even if we realise that Getha has a very specific meaning for computer users: Get Hardware Address.  One of the developments in Monk’s work has been her use of electronic technology and terminology, for her own subversive purposes.

‘The Transparent Ones’ are the poems written out of her time as a writer in residence at a hospice for terminally ill people.  If I like it so much, I think it is partly because Monk is often depicted as a wild woman of experimental poetry, whereas these poems show her capacity for a deep attachment to the people she works with, and her essential humanism. Sean Bonney in the Salzberg Review wrote:

Geraldine Monk is part of a quite easily identified unofficial tendency in contemporary British poetry.  A wild streak… shared with comparable poets like Bill Griffiths and Maggie O’Sullivan. [6]

This is ‘wild-poetry’, to use Bonney’s phrase, and as indeed the title Noctivagations suggests, but it is also profoundly responsible and responsive poetry.

The first poem is “The Gathering”, which begins as if with stage instructions, and the staccato phrasing also used to powerful effect in prose poem sections such as ‘Hidden Cities’ and ‘Three Short Sorties’:

(High noon.  Mid summer.  Terrace.  Round table.  High Peaks in the distance.  Round robin of low sleepless talk.  The Transparent Ones.)

The reference to ‘High Noon’ is a deliberate one, and it is typical of Monk’s work that she introduces filmic, popular culture references.  These are both comic and serious.  The struggle with death at the hospice is as intense as any Western gun battle.  It is also one of the ways in which we attempt to talk about death.

‘The Transparent Ones’ raises questions about life and death which are unanswerable, but Monk plays in deadly seriousness with those questions:

your natter-flack
questions creating
ineffable Q systems &
split infinities

Her irreverence towards established religion and Catholicism is probably most clearly reflected by one of her subjects in “Keltic Twilight”, who expresses his “apostasy” in vivid dialect, which Monk captures:  “t-poep-sa-nutter”.

There are almost unbearable descriptions and word play on dying flesh, but she never allows the poem to acquire too much solemnity.  Nor does she hide the pain of the last agony, and the panic:

Skin Panics.
Even our words are ridd ~ ~ led.
Sense disappears at every touch.

In the grip of rising panic
we watch the solitary leaf unfurl ~ ~
There are moments of relief
in every fiction

(The Unspeakable Softness of Flesh)

Here punctuation, specifically the tilde, is used to express the breakage or concealment of words and sense, and then becomes visually expressive of new growth.  We have also become familiar, perhaps unconsciously so, with the tilde on our computer screen where it can be shorthand for a hidden extended document title.  Finally there is probably also an echo of the Spanish diacritical mark, used to represent the sound ‘ny’, where the missing letter is ‘y’.

I particularly like “Across Your Dreams in Pale Battalions Go”, [7] in which Monk reworks the myth of Persephone, and features another strong female subject.  It includes one of the technical devices she uses frequently in ‘The Transparent Ones’, but also occurs elsewhere in her writing.  There are lines or verses in italics at the left hand margin, and then a verse which is inset in ordinary type.  Sometimes the lines in italics seem to act as commentary on the central verse, but at other times they act more as a dialogue or antiphon.  As the woman (M) reads the “childs/ Persephone”, the language of the poem becomes simultaneously child-like and Miltonic in its desolation.  These are lines written from Eve and Persephone’s perspective:

  M shivers,
Shifts unease.
    flowers wept
crops stopt
leaves turned
and shed

The female subject, Getha, in ‘Manufractured Moon’, is the poet’s persona, with all her various attributes, some of which I referred to earlier. ‘Manufractured Moon’ is a drama for radio written in the style of a series of emails from Getha to some other person, an unknown friend.  I like the urgent, present tense nervy email style, which plays with, amongst other things, the, often violent, urban and rural aspects of her locale late at night.  The first email subject is “Fox barks”, and must also make a sly reference to the Ted Hughes poem:

Sat upright and owl-eyed for hours so thoughts got to pellets & droppings of words but to longhand e-mail or fax foxes…

‘Manufractured Moon’ is also the most overtly feminist of the texts in Noctivagations, [8] This is manifest in a partial retelling of a child’s street or playground game about wanting to “cross the golden river”.  The children have to ask the “farmer’s” permission, and in Monk’s version the farmer (father) becomes a sinister figure: “Farmer Dark-Force may we par take our father’s boiled dinner as it is in heaven?”  The female self is also evident in her dig at organised religion.  She describes a ‘Last Supper of 2000’ hanging in her room, which shows Christ with a “heart shaped cob” and all the male apostles.  Later she becomes convinced that one of the apostles isn’t male at all, transforms him into Joan of Arc, and finally (he) sashays around like Gilda, a star of the silver screen.  Monk makes her own divinity in “Falling Outs”:

The blind even quivered as the iddy girl tungsten thin and burning bright fell out with all gods in a big way such as only youngage can with starry id.

There is real menace in this urban night, particularly in the figure of a threatening male stranger “flickering under the leaning street-lamp”.  There is fear and horror, and an edge of madness in the penultimate email: “Walls grin wetly.  And HE’s there again….”, and she signs off, or trails off, as Get…. In the final email, however, he has been returned to the lower case, and she is simply G. again, “Back on Track”.

Alison Croggon recently gave a very interesting paper on the writings of women mystics in mediaeval England, direct antecedents (if we need any) of Geraldine Monk.  She writes:

…these texts suggest intriguing ways of looking at contemporary practices.  They are most subversive in how they assert their rational basis within contemporary orthodoxies, which permits them to clear a space for a largely unheard female vocabulary which then becomes its own authority.  Mere emotion is not enough; mere intellectuality would not satisfy their desires nor permit a language for female expressiveness. [9]


[1] As highlighted by Christine Battersby: “The work of women writers and artists has to be constructed into individual oeuvres and situated in traditions of female creativity.” Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: towards a feminist aesthetics, Women’s Press, 1989, p. 10.

[2] Most of ‘La quinta del sordo’ is in Geraldine Monk, The Sway of Precious Demons, North and South, 1992, pp. 15-18. Originally published by Writers’ Forum, 1980.

[3] Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles, Northwestern University Press, 1998, p. 232.

[4] J.K. Huysmans, cited in Paul Eluard, Les freres voyants: anthologie des ecrits sur l’art, Gonthier, 1952, pp. 70-71.

[5] Clair Wills, “Contemporary women’s poetry: experimentalism and the expressive voice,” Critical Quarterly, 36 (3), p. 39.

[6] Sean Bonney, “Noctivagations,” Poetry Salzburg Review, 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 58-61.

[7] This title is a quotation from the First World War poet Charles Sorley, and the powerful sonnet “When you see millions of the mouthless dead.” It was a very popular poem that would have had a wide audience, but it is also formally interesting in its staccato, broken lines; an effect echoed in Monk’s writing.

[8] Other than the wonderful Sheila Na-gig in ‘Found Church Guide’, part of ‘Nine Little Ones’: “Her glappy lips span worlds/ warming cockles to guffaw away/ the damned devil.”

[9] Alison Croggon, “Specula: mirrors from the middle ages.” Talk given at Birkbeck University, London in November 2002. Paper provided by the author, p. 13.

BIO: Frances Presley’s publications include Linocut (London: Oasis, 1997); Private writings (Maquette: Sheepwash, 1998); Neither the one nor the other, with Elizabeth James (London; Form Books, 1999); Automatic Cross Stitch, with images by Irma Irsara (London: The Other Press, 2000); and Somerset letters, forthcoming from Oasis.  She has written about innovative British women poets in various conference papers, reviews and articles.  She lives in London.  Her own occasional press is The Other Press.

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