Hanging and Quartering

Escafeld Hangings, Geraldine Monk
[12, West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield, S7 1HN]

This title is presumably a pun. Escafeld is an old name for Sheffield, but Hangings in the sense of tapestries, or just hanging around? Execution is a theme of the book since the main character was Mary Queen od Scots, who was of course beheaded. One of the central conceits of the book is that Mary spent her time of confinement in needlework: producing tapestries, textiles, texts, letters. The book proclaims itself to be a book about a place, Sheffield, and so it needs to hang together in other senses as well. But it doesn't hang like a tapestry, it is not tightly woven, the picture it textures is a diffuse and many-angled one. Poem sequences about place have a long history, even within the field of modernism, and perhaps it is to this sequence's credit that it does not fit particularly into that tradition. The recent book it reminds me of is in fact one in a more mainstream (inevitable pun) tradition: Alice Oswald's Dart, which likewise uses voices culled from interviews and has a mimetic relation to its subject.

The ruined walls of Sheffield Manor of the cover photograph are taken up in the first section, 'The City of Eternal Construction'. These poems remind us that - unlike many of the hub cities of the industrial revolution - Sheffield had a past, is built upon ruins and tunnels and ghosts (although eternal might be pushing it, I always thought Rome was hubristic in calling itself the Eternal City). In these poems the language is clear, colloquial, narrative, almost guide-book. Perhaps there is some mockery here: one danger of 'place poems' is of pomposity and over-seriousness; what after all makes the place that is the subject of the poem unique? How to say this without using the language of the tour-guide or the 'City of Contrasts' tone of the civic documentary (as in the pre-credits sequence to
The Full Monty)?.

For Monk the uniqueness of Sheffield is its history. The second section is 'Mary Queen of Scots'. The first part of this, 'Unsent Letters', is even more relaxed, a series of post-historical letters composed by an imaginary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth in prose, cheerfully anachronistic, as if Mary were still ghosting in the ruins of Sheffield Manor taking on the language and concerns of a contemporary urban Sheffield, still pleading for release until in her last letter she comes to 'the inconsolable scratch of quill at the final loop of my signature'. Then follows 'She Kept Birds', for me the least successful section of the book. In a series of lists the Latin name for a bird is followed by its dialect names. Naturally, these names are often curious and euphonic but this seems uncreated as a poem, even lazy. Lists like this depend on the work of Victorian naturalist-scholars such as Swainson, who spent their lives collecting these items of folk-speech. Like much folklore, they were close to oblivion even then, and most of them are now as ddead as the Latin species-names they follow. Lists like this just perpetuate the quaintness of dialect speech unhistorically, without adding anything to what is already available in the lexicons. A different poet (Bob Cobbing?) might have made more of this.

Then there is 'Marian Hangings', a sequence of short poems. These are great. I'll quote one in full, 'The Hand and Pruning Book':

'virtue flourishes by wounding'
my gift of love cut-c
lean fruity through.

Not just the radical enjambment, the sound of it, that word
fruity that does so much. Monk is a poet concerned with sound, the book comes with a CD in which the words are sounded at full throat with Rs rolled and all the French coming out (at times there is a deliberate indistinction between Sheffield dialect and French, in ma for my etc.) So in 'Mary Through the Looking Glass', which on the CD is a performance piece, full of shivery echoes and French samples. Keats on acid.

The last section, 'Shed', is more withdrawn, contemplative even. The writing is more taut, the poems patterned, textual, closer to tapestry. These (it states) are poems that were literally written in Monk's garden shed, continuing with many of the previous themes but in a different register. There is much on Mary's clothing, fashion, etc. I would have liked this section more without the claims that the blurb makes on the back cover: 'Without assuming personae
Escafeld Hangings offers a psychological mapping of political imprisonment with its implications for our own time'. I never like to be told how to read a poem; this claim seems to teeter towards the grandiose. If there are parallels between the imprisonment of Mary and current imprisonments, they seem to be pretty tenuous beyond that of the exigencies of politics, the unjustness of being caught and used as a pawn in a bigger claim. Mary was no Ang Sang Sui, campaigning for democracy. I think the poem is intelligent enough to contain this, among its many observations and reflections. The deliberate use of anachronism and contemporary reference are enough here.

I think everyone already agrees that imprisonment is a bad experience and therefore people in prison are unhappy, you don't need to read a poem to discover this. If the poem 'wanted' to have more implications for our own time, that should have been included inside the book, not on its sleeve. I found myself reading to find things that were in the end not there. Or am I missing something?

A pity when a blurb almost spoils a good book by making larger-than-life claims.

Giles Goodland 2005