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Ghost & Other Sonnets

- Ian Heames

Ghost & Other Sonnets, Geraldine Monk (Cambridge: Salt, 2008)

The sonnet is traditionally a rigid form but ghosts have always drifted through walls. Geraldine Monk’s new book, Ghost & Other Sonnets (Salt, 2008) mediates density and atmospherics, eerie space and close compression, in poems of occult fun and sinister complexity.

A spectral snap-shot of poetic method in Ghosts:

Swallow-tail moth artificially lit

Lighting, here, intersects the insect alighting. Drawn under these conditions the moth is stark, mechanistic. Spindly legs fold into its perch. Monk’s artifice defamiliarises the swallow-tail, strange little monster in this light.

Such technical concentration is a compositional mainstay of these sonnets. It yields a firmament of options, ways of reading the texts as variant constellations among the same pitch of stars, disputed lay-lines across semantic fields. Monk knows words will have and go their own way. Ghosts embraces the ouija-like influence of etymological or homophonic trajectory to buckle and splice any one stab at linear meaning. Second readings are always likely to re-route down an abandoned path. Committed to their non-linear processes, the sonnets discover many a cubed one-liner.

This inclusion of word vectors extends over the sequence. A narrative thread from one poem might snag in another, leaving clues to possible (occluded) incidents. In one such case, early in Ghosts, we perhaps glimpse forensic traces of prior frenzies. ‘[L]ost / Cotton socks’, in reference to the drowned girl of sonnet 2, cuts the tabloid pathos of a hack nickname with its synechdochic figuration of innocence. But the sock is also a forlorn shred of material evidence. And not far off, in sonnet 4, we find ‘Discarded kid / Gloves’. The shadow of a filmically accoutred killer, on the run in the run-on, redresses the sad Romantic suicide of previous open-ended assumption, leaving–––perhaps–––a queasy double story of paed-Ophelia. Aspersions are cast but unsettled, raise hovering possibilities. Each poem makes a restless space, an unquiet room in which word and reader are ‘Doomed to overwrite in perpetuity.’

Monk’s reader must always mediate between her doubling grammars, not least remaining mindful of the triplet doppelgangers comprising the book’s title. ‘Ghost’, ‘&’, ‘Other’: each is a title in itself, heading up a section of the book (divided into these three parts).  Every ounce of potential is thereby summoned out of words habitually lost to a customary phrase, ‘& Other Sonnets’ being the bulky half-title of a thousand collections. This is Monk’s alchemy, that the old formula can force a new result and estranged encounter. We should read: Ghost. &. Other.–––Sonnets. The language is made exclusively from moving parts. As a consequence, the poems of each section are couched in suggestive relation to their respective section headings, words freighted with over- and under-determined potential. It’s rare that a humble conjunction reads as weirdly as Monk’s &.

Among the various ghosts, or &s, or Others of these sonnets, an uncannily domestical spirit recurs, insisting on a sense of locality and place not to be transgressed. Belonging (or otherwise) is conjured tacitly, not known openly, and hence Monk’s deft trade in bespoke dialect, her black-market undercurrency of counterfeited compounds and coinages. Words like ‘yeah-day’, for instance, or ‘chapel-rot’. In sound and sense both are fugitively evocative, and provoking to the outsider.

Sometimes, the spirit of place is malicious in inspiring or hijacking these neologisms. Spooked holiday-makers in sonnet 16 are alive to their touristic transgression: ‘They packed their unbelongings. Quick.’ Again, the ‘Rasps of ingle spite’, of sonnet 49 catch a furiously parochial tone. From its soundscape, ‘ingle spite’ could be a Germanic dialect, reserved for gossip and spell books. This phrase for glozing hearthsides hints imaginative volumes about the raspers but itself stays secretive, indeterminately tight-lipped.

Things dark and darkly comic frequently commix in Monk’s locutions. Puns are a significant nexus of humour in Ghosts. Monk’s puns are embedded (pun)chlines that appropriate and divert appropriate assumptions on the sense of a verse, and morph it sonically.

Fragmented fugues of spheres break
Wind on mobile ring tones.

Phones twang preciously like a wind-on music box, this unenjambed option poised aptly to Dopplerize the vowel tone scanned as you pass ‘wind’.

The puns of a linguistic community are perhaps its most naturally (and strangely) comedic language. The fortuitous contingence and sonic materiality of the pun is brought out paradoxically in Monk’s sonnets, where intensive compositional artifice accrues around lexical items themselves beyond compositional control: the magic given object that activates a spell. The pun is always set, a jewel and trap. It thus performs technically a trait central to these multi-fascinating sonnets, a bronchic splitting best caught in the spoken breath.

Ian Heames



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