after Ghosts & Other Sonnets by Geraldine Monk
throes of profound bafflement. In that time distant wellheads flared through the
night. A wolf howling long spare notes that held and tapered. An old story with teeth in it. Hackle-backed non-conformists burned at the stake or publicly hanged. Dritten.
Big Bad Wolf
Hungry like the Wolf
Weaponised. When the man in them would kill the wolf, the wolf/woman would burn. Did. Burn. Outside the circle of settlement, the stars pulse. Inside, enforced assimilation and bone-moan. While some/one of us watched.
disconcerted ferns peer out of the frame of an infrared photograph. Light beyond 700 nanometres, photography which uses a special portion of the light spectrum invisible to the naked eye to reveal an invisible world. Giant fronds reflect bright white light against a black sky, a woman padding a trail towards a blacker O at the end of the fern tunnel. This is an old story sans les mots, like the fleeting borders of canopy and sky, “the chaos of memories”, the stutter before the poem, or like Hank Williams crooning “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Being there, a spatial experience as it is lived, indivisible and infused with multiple lived dimensions. Being here, a feeling of outsidedness because the place is no longer what it was when you were in it, dwelling amongst ferns in silver light.
clingy narratives…perforated syntax. Sheared from Swede Hollow and Hamm’s Land of Sky Blue Waters, she learned to play G Clef (Every Good Boy Deserves Favours). A part-time job on the Hammond organ at the funeral home until she unspooled the etude and then “Rhapsody in Blue” with its blues-based harmonies and call-and-response gestures. She sat in the school auditorium, gasping for air, like Thor’s Well swallowing the sea water around it. This is the real deal, it’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” with a trumpet feature, or plunging from a swim raft into glacial waters, losing consciousness/fished out. Everything was swell until she was awakened in the night by a man crossing the transom with his hands on fire. The only certainty was the howl of the Union Pacific as it thundered north through town.
midnight oily. Ruddy red hue of the moon in eclipse. Sliding into umbra, pulling up the hand brake. Predictions of apocalypse and other end-of-the-world stuff on the airwaves. Rare insights possible from the corner of the room. Soothsayers run amok in the streets for 3.4731 hours, the longest partial lunar eclipse in a millennium. Pollution, ash and dust scatter colours in different directions. Those with longer wavelengths get refracted and paint the moon redglow. Something slouches towards Sheffield to be born. Hen harriers, curlews oystercatchers, goldfinches, a stonechat, linnets, crows and a short-eared owl assemble for a song, while here in Canterbury, thick, never-ending cloud. I’m done with sonnets and the moon. No more moon shit.
a noun drowned an overgowned thought. But it’s just not poetry. Isolated phrases and images strung together like washing on a line, running on nerve. Today is the first day of summer. Like Heidegger’s Hütte in Todtnauberg, thought is hard to find. The encounter, unproductive, in the place whose name means death. Longing like Celan for “the thinker’s word / to come / in the heart”. Komm raus auf eine Lichtung. Bring guests with you. Listen to the rain as the trees shift inward, shuffling off droplets in staccato. Listen to the insects and the worms. In some areas beetles devastated acres of trees, but they warned everybody first. This is the outside reality. Inside, steam trains of thought wax gaseous at 126 mph until superseded by computer chip. It raises the temperature of things.
petrifaction happens. Some trees so rare that only an individual remains, like Hyophorbe amaricaulis, the lonesome pine. Each tree is a world, and when it dies, its world dies too. We entered the Rainbow Forest via Route 66 in the summer of 1968. Summer asters, rabbit brush and sunflowers in bloom, the song of the lark and the rock wren. The folk duo Simon and Garfunkel released their album Bookends that year. How terribly strange to be 70, we sang along to the 8-track player. How terribly. Strange. To be. Seventy. The full stops break off the rickrack of the imagination. A half-said thing. But now that the point has been reached, we might as well throw off the sackcloth and ash and imbibe the gay and salubrious albeit dwindling present.
reptilian spine vault gothic. Net of branches leading out to a widening space. Incipient ridge, hovering over the phrase. Disjunction/connection. Rupture/association. Architecture meets mysticism meets natural science. Strange bedfellows. The vaulted ceiling moves and breathes like a rib cage. In the sacred city, form follows function. Just as in the automated perimetry test, little pinpoints of light appear in different places around a concave screen, and you press a switch whenever you see one. Rapture association. They built higher, built thinner, making space for large windows of opaque glass. Some extraneous materials find their way into the work. Like the keystones at the intersection of ribs that hold it all together. Roof bosses engage the world through the naked eye.
the disembodied head looked lost over heels. Decollation, the head of Saint John the Baptist on a charger. Maybe we won’t meet again. Or nowadays, to separate something into individual forms. Stationery, cutlery, poems. Some poems are reassembled as a series by their status on the New York subway, others discretely. Young men learning the processes of their (male) elders. Overhead the indifferent cars. Pass. A reticence to name them because the detail is incidental. Under the asphalt the rawness of the land. Outside my window the quaking aspen semaphore to those longing for the sea. Inside, a fork occasionally pings on a plate. Who would have thought that soil is fragile, recent, ephemeral? Or that phrases have eyes in the backs of their heads?
seeing is not believing but retrieving fragments. No fishes swim in Mousesweet Brook. No green and pleasant pastures seen. Just blasted, stunted trees and smoke spinning out from the coal mines, the iron foundries, the brick works. The Black Country, black by day, red by night. It all started here. A host of suffering and [ ]. Her mouth uncondescending in the absence of blue sky, clean air, Mary MacArthur speaks from atop a slag heap to the women hammering out chains in backyard sheds for 5 shillings a week. Oh, but the chains we made were not made of daisies. Every breath rasps, a floe of cinder, clang of chain, and us a single link honed into momentary being. The sky invisible for years now. And we who lived. And died here. Could not let it go.
he died girlish young. Sat and watched the children building sandcastles on the corn- flour barrier beaches nearest the silty outwash of the Cape Fear River, named by the crew of Richard Grenville when their ship became embayed in the 16th century. Two shifting arcs of low-lying beach, the result of longshore drift. Saltmeadow cordgrass whorled by the wind, as though animals have slept there. Behind the beach, sea oats flex in the seabreeze, their roots holding the sand in place. Cape Fear River carries C8HF1502 in its keratinized scales. Forever chemicals used for non-stick cookware, flame retardant, school uniforms. Found in pizza boxes, food packaging, dental floss. Here, where rag-tag stores sell inflatable flamingos, beach balls, buckets, and mud minnows.
unnatural drops in temperature. Fish maintain aesthetic distance, provide evidence for why we might want to keep on loving the world. Emotional and intellectual structure keep pulling against each other. Structure, the basis of a curse, a poem. Or a container that paradoxically gives the possibility of enlargement. Pressure of expectation with tricks up its sleeve. There’s a ghost in this poem. A lit room, gone dark. Eyelids flicker with the memory of light waltzing the curtains. An empty space in the bed, the stillness of sheets. Try to enter the room without intention. You don’t see it but you know it’s there. The dead are closer than you think. Try to write against the clock seconds away from nuclear midnight. Blow the conch shell, gather the women for the condolence ceremony. It’s time to return to the earth what you have taken.
a lunar globe right in the middle of her forethought. Once I was a girl floating in a cottonwood bosque outside Albuquerque. Late August, I let the Female River carry me downstream, roiling with the red dirt of the plains. Along its sinuous banks, giant river cane and salt cedar, the rattling bugle of a sandhill crane calling to her mate, then resuming her solitary watch. Brave river, she carries with her the waters of the Pecos, the Devils, the Chama, the Puerco, the Salado and the San Juan. Acquainted with piñon forest, juniper and sagebrush, mesquite, creosote and yucca, now a bed of mud and a few puddles for the silvery minnows to abide awhile. Once I listened to the clatter of the cottonwoods. In late spring I watched as the female trees threw their seeds into the air, filling the sky with stars.
thermometric liquid. She was reading an article about a lost city under the sea. Fuelled not by volcanic activity, but by vents formed when seawater encounters rock from the Earth’s mantle, creating hydrogen, methane and other gases. Carbon-engineered spires and columns that hadn’t been seen before drape the cliffs. Delicate fronds reaching upwards like fingers in prayer. An abundance of snails and crustaceans, microbial life and some larger animals too. So deep that light cannot penetrate, and so a place where spontaneous life might have begun. That night she dreamed she was a sea urchin living in a group with lots of other sea urchins, small, spiny and round. Her body one big compound eye. Without skin she had a different way of seeing things.
a forlorn moan at altitude. Outside, a dark orange panorama as if. An abandoned yellow wellie in dead grass, an ode to the month of weeds. Time to memorise evacuation routes. Pack a go-bag, leave it by the door. Supercharged, extreme weather. Tipping points and feedback loops. Large volumes of carbon dioxide and soot from a Russian plant that burns over £8 million of gas every day. Giant gash in the earth’s surface, land turned inside out. Once fertile fields turned sere, blank, furrowed like corduroy. Devoid of vegetation other than a few weeds imbibing the margins. Eerie hunger stones from the 17th century re-emerge from empty European rivers. The environment minister says we all need to be less squeamish about drinking water from sewage.
willow oh willow
Biologists work to rescue the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows from the dry riverbed in Albuquerque, New Mexico. July 26.
willow oh willow
A car heads south on a bridge over a mostly dry Platte River south of Columbus, Nebraska. July 28.
willow oh willow
Houseboats stranded on the dry bed of the Waal River in the Netherlands. August 10.
willow oh willow
Boats abandoned on the dried lakebed of a port in Velence, Hungary. August 11.
willow oh willow
A man and his cows walk among water ponds on the dry riverbed of the Danube, southern Romania. August 11.
willow oh willow
The Nailbourne river, which runs through Patrixbourne and Bridge near Canterbury, lies dormant. August 11.
willow oh willow
An island on the Rhine near Bingen, Germany is now accessible on foot. August 14.
willow oh willow
Park visitors observe the bleached “bathtub ring” visible on the banks of Lake Mead. August 19.
willow oh willow
We walk the dry riverbed of the Ganjiang River in Nanchang, China. August 22.
birdsong impaled. Bede tells of a sparrow who enters a mead hall on a winter night raging with storm. The bird flies in one door and out through another at the opposite end of the room. But the sparrow knows nothing of life in the room. All over the city, hotel rooms, cooled for expected guests, sit empty. In the lobby there are five clocks to tell the time in five different cities. She wonders if someone like her is standing in a hotel lobby looking at a clock telling the time in her city. This city has grown too big for trees or birds, so the hotel plays continuous birdsong through amplifiers. They say it makes the guests feel calm. From the window of her room, she watches the crowd struggling with umbrellas in the windy streets below. From such a height they resemble little iambs flying round a fairy ring. Little dead feet.
a fine line between a fine line. With coloured chalk we drew joined up squares on the sidewalk for hopscotch. Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back the children chanted. I would forfeit a round to avoid one, but in the end, I wasn’t the one to break her. What is the line between crisis and catastrophe? Is it a crisis when it’s in progress, whereas a catastrophe has already happened? Antarctica is crumbling at its edges, shedding icebergs faster than the ice can be replaced. Beneath the ice meltwater resides in lakes and rivers that are constantly emptying and replenishing. This year, Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years. There is no square marked safe. They say the game of hopscotch is an ancient game. All you need to play is a few lines and a short chain with a charm.
a plainchant vortex. I follow the chalk path until Denge Wood opens out into a clearing. Crows rise and swirl above the plough’s blade. It’s been a good year for the corn. They say if you see a crow, the path ahead is clear. I’d like to meet and talk with you, Crow. IRL. Undercover in a country luxuriating in the death of the Sovereign, the government issues a swathe of fracking licenses. This evening the sky is on fire. Spicer says, “Things fit together.” When the heart’s fibres turn inward, they form a vortex in the ventricle. Currents collide and merge into a circular flow, like the maelstrom at Saltstraumen, the strongest in the world. A funnel down a hollow to a funnel of its own. The magnificent horror as the mouth howls and bellows. Luring us by the sweetness of the song.
crux matters. She comes to the point where she needs solitude from the Oxford comma debate and so finds herself figuratively in La Sierra de los Órganos on the autumn equinox. Formed 32 million years ago, the needle-like spires resemble the pipes of an organ. The mountain, vermillion in late-day light, surrounds the city of Las Cruces. A borderline of truth/fiction. Where they trained astronauts for the moon missions (truth). Home to the Wicked Witch of the West (fiction). She watches the migrating birds shoulder their leaving, hailing: Prosper you desert mule deer, you prairie falcon. Prosper you rock wren and sparrow. Try as she might, she cannot shut down the coming synergistic compound effects. Trying to live life how it is, or how she imagines it. Feeling like she’s lived long enough.
ghost of her ghosts. Before she had sex for the first time, she told him she was not a virgin. He was furious when she bled on the sheets. It made her soul go slack. She left feeling unclean, although she now had Carnal Knowledge, carrying on as if nothing had changed. Knowledge that showed up too late. That summer afternoon still hovers over her, reflecting the dissatisfaction of empty rooms. Soundless but for the cicadas and their zza zza zza from the cottonwood trees outside. Feeling most at home when she is not, she becomes one of those people who keeps sets of keys for all the houses she has lived in, including the one where he throws all her clothes out of the window onto the street. People give her a wide berth after that.
[Nancy Gaffield is the author of six poetry publications, including Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011), Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), Meridian (Longbarrow Press 2019), and most recently, Wealden (Longbarrow 2020). Reader Emeritus in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, she co-edits the online magazine: Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics, and she is a contributing editor for Golden Handcuffs Review.]
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