Monday, December 16, 2013

‘the tildes outside language were not pronounced’: Some Notes on the Transubstantiation of Geraldine Monk’s Poetics part five

In ‘Voca-visu (orientation)’ the word in brackets is most telling. Monk was part of a nexus of performers, such as Aaron Williamson, Brian Catling and Caroline Bergvall, whose performance writing, from the early 1990s onwards, involved the realisation of ‘voca-visu’ text in spatial and installation space, where interdisciplinary practice combined and contested aspects of theatre, dance, poetry reading, performance, installation art (and, to a lesser extent, music). It was ‘advancing words beyond jealous boundaries,’ as Monk puts it, the sometimes closely guarded borders between disciplines and practices. This work, in the end-stopped first three lines of the poem, is

            Delivered with ambulation.

Movement, process and material objects are three components of this interdisciplinary art, the poet only part of the ‘exhibition’ now.  Monk’s description, characteristically in this poetics piece, offers negative aspects as well as positive ones. Space and place are the parameters of performance. The distinction begins benignly enough, with a formal splitting of the word ‘inhabit’ that brings forth combinations of habilitation and habituation in the word.

            To perform is to in habit space.
            Performance is aggressive occupation of
            place. Convoluvulaceous. Territorial laundering. 
Whereas space is easily occupied by performance, as a generalised environment, place (say, a named location with its histories and stories ) demands ‘occupation’, which is annexation rather than habitation, an opposition perhaps exemplified by thinking of space as a horizontal leaking outwards and place as vertical, digging itself into one location. ‘Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far,’ suggests the geographer Doreen Massey in for space, with a sense of multiple occupation and unfinish which matches Monk’s inhabited sense of ‘mutability’, although Massey rejects the opposition of space place which nevertheless still offers Monk a useful binary to draw out the clinging (‘Convoluvulaceous’) sense of territorial appropriation that some performance seems to demand, making its territorial mark, or ‘scent spraying’ as she puts it in animalistic terms that relates it more to the verticality of place.  (Massey 2005: 9) As John Hall writes, in defining ‘site’ (as in ‘site-specific’, another word to describe this work), that ‘some writers respond to site in strictly formal terms – responding, for example, to the shape, colour and light of an internal or external space;’ he contrasts this spatial sense with that of those who ‘respond to sites as places already full of social or cultural associations’. (Hall 2013: 159) Without wanting to sound too reductive, we could say that space is formal; place is full of content, and thus contestable, conflictual, and necessitating ‘Equipping body with armoury’, in Monk’s words.

Frances Presley notes of this poem that ‘costume is a profound necessity’ (Presley 2007: 140). Unlike Denise Riley’s poetry reading where dress is ‘accidental’, this performance provides the unlikely combination of, choices between,

                                                            Feather boa.
            Redriding hooded habit.
            Dietrich slink-
            acrylic shocking-pinkoid bucket

which take us from fairy-tale to Weimer cabaret, via ‘Poundstretcher gadgets’ and ‘other strategies’ involving different ‘Paraphenalia’.[i] All add to the effect summarised in the first of these closing lines of the poem:

The ritualistic delineation of space.


            spell spelleps lleps
Scent spraying. Carnal. Nails upalert.
(Keratin overshoot is ard but dead but vital)
Toes in perpetual isometric desperation
clinging for balance:

a body hanging by its feet.

This heavily defamiliarised passage almost describes a ritual. ‘Chantcasters’, a word from the headnote (but also a title of some Monk texts in their own right) resonates with repetition to that account of the genesis of a poem, but links with the oddly quasi-anagrammic, quasi-palindromic ‘spell spelleps lleps’ that follows. This is a ‘voca-visu’ fragmentation of language, where only ‘spell’ has a meaning (and not a fixed one; it is a word with four major meanings, four etymologies). By synaesthetic effect this chantcasting (is this a witch’s spell from the voices of the Pendle Witches?) transforms into the ritual territorialisation of ‘Scent spraying’. As ever, the poem draws utterance (or here action in space) back to the body, bluntly announced with the unattached adjective ‘Carnal.’ The focus is almost exclusively on the human feet, with the violent image of ‘a body hanging by its feet’, a posture at once tense and painful, but presumably part of a performance in space, with the toes hanging on and polished hard with keratin. ‘(Keratin overshoot is ard but dead but vital)’ uses bold type to visually accentuate vocal stress patterns: the hard nails are technically dead but vital to the process of ‘clinging for balance’. Feet themselves (and the word ‘feet’ in ‘voca-visu’ doubleness) disappear into the iterative ‘.t.t.t.t.t.’, one for each toe. Attridge argues that ‘the greater the number of repetitions, the more obvious their anti-closural effect; a single repetition can be read as an emphatic and final reiteration,’ but Monk seems to both adhere to this ‘rule’ and break it. The repetitions hang to the final ‘.t.’, a kind of acrobatic-alphabetic finale, as though it were a single repetition, the hanging body of closure, perhaps a corpse. (Attridge 2013: 43)

[i] I am assuming that these miscellaneous objects have been used by Monk or observed in others’ performances. ‘Other placements demand other strategies,’ she says, the word ‘placement’ suggesting commissioned work. How ‘junk shop bayonets’ were used I am not sure, but the surprising ‘double-decker buses’ refers to Monk’s ‘Hidden Cities’, ‘part of a series of “alternative” bus tours around 5 English Cities’. (Monk 2001: 117). The text of Monk’s tour around Manchester, ‘Hidden Cities’, appears in Monk 2001: 61-70.