Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh, by Geraldine Clarkson, Nine Arches Press, 80 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1911027935
Poetry challenges the mind to consider each word in terms of connotation rather than merely referent, to hear the music of the whole poem as a symphony rather than simply attempting to unravel secret meanings. The extent to which poets play on this use of language varies enormously, but in this distinctive debut, the reader is in for a feast of juxtaposition, unusual metaphor and conceit, highly charged lines and double entendres. Using wit as a palate cleanser, Clarkson guides the reader through sensations and emotional turbulences even when narrative layers and autobiographical details are kept deliberately opaque.
Although this is a debut collection, the multi-award-winning Clarkson has already established a reputation for her sparkling, Hopkins-like sprung rhythm. (One poem, “neversaid”, is after Hopkins). She has also previously published three chapbooks with Shearsman: Declare (a Poetry Society pamphlet choice), 25 and Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament, and many of those poems reappear here. Her work has been broadcast and published widely in the UK, and as testament to her exceptional talent, no fewer than five poems have already appeared in Poetry Magazine (Chicago). Another chapbook, Crucifox, is forthcoming from Verve in 2021.
English-born, with a strong Irish heritage, Clarkson spent a decade in a cloistered community in Peru, where silence was practised and creative writing was disallowed. But it certainly laid the groundwork for rich material. Almost from the outset, we are aware of a hidden story: “I was interred there for dry-throated reasons, / for years” (“Nuns Galore”).
The title is echoed in the titles of the three sections of the collection ‑ [monikers], [overcoat], [flesh] ‑ establishing Clarkson’s fondness for wordplay. A child called Monica is also alluded to in the eponymous poem, and later, “I asked for Monica outside a bar” (“Nutmeg, America”) and so the three sections could be interpreted as suggesting “identification”, “the hidden”, and “bare (thin-skinned) exposure”, although only a peephole is allowed.
No poem here is without a second or third layer, not even the seemingly slight opening poem, which captures a fleeting moment where the speaker enters a cafe off the Panamericano and asks, in faltering Spanish, for the loo. “Las Damas?” The scene is set, complete with dogs (threat), desert (a glimpse only, before the door slams shut), and consciousness of language (not “the more neutral word”, but “Ladies”, a particularly feminine alternative). The next poem, “Camelament”, starts with an epigraph: “Listen, O daughter, give an ear to my words: forget your own people and your father’s house.” (Psalm 44). With these two poems, we are introduced to some of the nuances of this collection: a cutting-off, and a venturing into new territory, which is not without its own dangers: “a chain of Cheyennes / touches the lodge of / an enemy. You explode / flat on the floor. Fat / on fear. Flayed / with sharp, and hot, and not.’ Tonally pitch-perfect, Clarkson’s assonant rhythms, unexpected language, collations and juxtapositions are alive with mercurial ingenuity and compressed emotional intensity.
One conceit in the collection is that of dressing and undressing, clothing and nakedness. In “Novice’s Diurnal”, a rebelliousness appears: “vest yourself / with shirt of hare, to keep you fleet // of heart, not bound to anyone.” Later in the poem, gender assumptions are subverted, opening up further speculation: “Raven-cap. And at your throat, a pendant, / turned from linnet-earth, half-ribbed, // to hop against your Adam’s apple …”
In “A Young Woman Undressed Me”, the apparently male persona is being undressed, over and over, like a gif. (There is mention of cuffs, tie, and, again, “my Adam’s apple”).
As well as numerous body references, there are considerations of identity. Clarkson’s “moniker” as a novice was “Catalina”, the Spanish version of her confirmation name. In a page-long prose poem that captures the fizz and essence of her personality, she describes how she finally chose that name: “An abrupt shift of continent and a spell as Spanish Heraldine, hollow herald, before I was anchored as Catalina. It was good enough and I had a fierce leper-licking patron I was happy to sail a decade by.”
Clothing and accessories also recur throughout the collection: broderie anglaise, silk bloomers, dove-grey slippers, mahogany fur, jade velvet jacket, Aran sweaters, etc. In “Bridal”, a corset becomes a metaphor for a lesson that was passed on:
all the checks
to sense, which you gradually learned to choose,
much as you taught me — circumcision of the spirit —
so maybe, in the end, it was a comfort to keep the world
in harness, something to push against.
The defiance of that last line suggests previous constraints and curbs and is also a core theme. Although Clarkson has taken on her own form of corset ‑ the nun’s habit and veil ‑ the pleasures of the senses are flaunted, particularly indulgence in food. And yet sometimes there is an ironic, even bitter aftertaste, as though this celebration is a bravado act. In “Days Round like the Moon”, she introduces a different side to the nuns, whom she refers to as “women of the blue faeces, dusting the moon and sinking down naked to dawn and Lauds”. In “Blue Robe”, a prose poem, the line “I am blue robe” is repeated no less than four times. Oblique suggestiveness and deflection prick small shocks: “I was robbed, rebuffed, ruby-led, rubbed men’s ribs, had my cord re-brushed, talked to a closet philosopher who said I chose it all ‑ the cut and crud, my pre-time choice; the caul and pall; my plum-bloom voice.”
Another of Clarkson’s devices is the overlapping of languages. In “Camelament”, the poem opens: “Whistle, chica. /Whisht. Give your ear / close and flutter.” Perhaps this conflation is a way of gathering her separate, distinctive selves.
A number of the poems, such as “Crenella’s Truth Tower”, seem to contain dark secrets: “Seven varieties of untruth dwell in the castle, / subfunctional. The untruth dwells in hands, chins, cloaks, misty cupboards, and on the breakfast bar.” In “Miss Marple Loosens her Bra”, we unexpectedly meet the detective in a private moment, a domestic setting. “What path of peccadillos led me here?” she wonders.
Clarkson’s particular strength is in portraying atmosphere and conflicted inter-personal dynamics. Using line breaks and metaphor to good effect, she introduces her family pithily in the following poem (and I’ll quote it in its entirety, as it’s so short):
I had a red silk cloth for a mother,
three gold coins for a father.
Brothers and sisters were peas
in a pod. We lived at the end of a
stick. Dick was the name of the boy
who led us to fortune.
Wordplay is something Clarkson delights in, although occasionally this might backfire. While a playful pun, the title of one poem, “For Our Extinguished Guests”, undermines a perceived menace:
Ceremonial farewells: they hug;
she smuggles a shell to her mother
(give nothing unless the Abbess allow);
then watches planes, which might be his,
arc the desert ‑ the selva of parted birds,
painted rainforests, terrorists …
There are references to other writers (I particularly liked “feed depression to a gull called Guillaume”, which I’m guessing alludes to Apollinaire) and mentions of fairy tales and folk songs (for example “John Brown’s Body”), which serve both as symbol and shield. Poems are plaited together, Muldoon-style, via a word, an image, a colour, an allusion. Brazenly, Clarkson even includes two versions of the same poem – “Leonardo and the Birds of Clay” ‑ first as a sonnet and then (fourteen pages later) written as a prose poem, the original sonnet (marked in bold) embedded within the text.
Mostly what appeals is the zest of the images: “A shout of black and white”; “clicked into guest-quarters”; “feather-vanes”; “iced lemon and a yard broom”. So many of Clarkson’s phrases (not to mention experiences) radiate novelty: “at a rough-backed hour”; “wiry trees like acolytes surround a simple hut”; “the bosky place, cloaked in verde” (“St Rose of Lima’s Revenge”). As Tristram Fane Saunders has noted, “Bosky” plays on both meanings of the word: “covered with trees” and “tipsy”. My search threw up bosky as an adjective, meaning woody or bushy. In the poem “You taught me a new way of singing –“ the word appears again: “you bosky, you buzzing, you clopping in time”. Here, she could be using the word as a noun or an adjective ‑ thus the open-endedness of interpretation.
The poet sings variously in a range of different dramatic structures: “She’ll be Apples” and “Macroglossia” are concrete poems and there’s an impressive variety of forms ‑ tercets, couplets, quatrains, sequences, indented stanzas, long lines, brief vignettes ‑ all of which add visual interest. There are also a number of prose poems, one of which is “Mono”, after a poem by Baudelaire, playing on his title – “Be Drunk” ‑ by instructing: “Be a Monk”. As with numerous poems here, there’s an undercurrent: “Charge your glass with chastity … get tipsy on temperance … ask your uncle and he will teach you!”
Food is a predominant theme, and even when not directly the subject it is evoked in ironic clichés: “mackerel sky”, “honey skin”, “pie chart”, continuing the trajectory of the poems of the senses, where a conflicted sense of guilt is implied in overt or oblique references to “fat”: “I was a stone or two overweight” (“the last thing”), “lardy dhal”; “how I wobble before you now, cow / of love, humongous, like a free-range sack of boulders swaying …” (“Love Cow”). Perhaps the strict regime at the convent acted like the corset, something to push against:
In the kitchen it is still
one dab of mayonnaise
per lettuce leaf, one spoon of sugar
Clarkson’s refusal to pin down meaning is as enticing as her startling similes: “I wave as happy / as a spider in lilied bullied twilight” (“the last thing”), and because her language is so multi-referential, layered with cunning strategies and subtexts, the collection warrants numerous readings, each rewarding the reader with further intoxicating nuances.
Unlike many debuts that suffer from predictable content and good behaviour, Clarkson’s collection is exuberant, experimental and unashamedly “sinful”. “Sin-eating for Beginners” is oh-so non-contrite as it ploughs through her self-selected deadly sins: ire, envy, desire, habit, ennui, omission, deceit: “What a smörgåsbord of bad / is here.”
For a debut collection it is also impressively sparing of the I word, as though the speaker has set the stage of her cloistered life and then ducked out the back door, leaving the reader to wander through the scenes, coming to her own Miss Marple conclusions. But if Clarkson’s life is hidden behind a gauzy veil, we certainly have access, via her language and imagery, to her acrobatic and brilliant mind.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent book is Invisible, Insane (SurVision). Ten of her poems were published by SurVision, in an anthology of surrealist poetry, Seeds of Gravity, in May 2020. www.africmcglinchey.com