by Janet Sutherland
Like Hughes’ Crow, Sutherland’s Bone Monkey (from Shearsman) is elemental, brutal, amoral, part Jungian shadow, part Freudian id, a trickster and shape-shifter nightmarishly familiar from the old dark tales – yet wholly original, authentically uncanny, in the forms and voices he takes on between the covers of this book. On the front cover is a reproduction of an 18th century mezzotint of an écorché, a human figure stripped of skin and flesh to reveal, in this case, how the major muscles are attached to the skeleton: an apt image for the psychic flaying that the poetry enacts and exacts.
Bone Monkey is a manifest apparition, a conjured entity, both primitive and contemporary. I heard Sutherland read from the work at Lauderdale House in spring 2014, not having come across her work previously, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled animal-like to the stalking presence she invoked. I might add that we’d had supper together in a café (with the evening’s host Shanta Acharya) before the readings and I’d noticed nothing in the least shamanic, let alone demonic, about this grey-haired and softly-spoken woman (whose true likeness appears on the book’s back cover). Sutherland introduced her reading by saying that an elderly relative of hers who’d been suffering from dementia had spoken about the monkey who sat on her shoulder, no doubt a personification of the condition, the profound disturbance it produced in her. This information certainly helps to account for the sustained and malevolent energy of the work but is not necessary for an appreciation of how Bone Monkey operates as an archetype, an unwelcome companion from the underworld, one who insists on recognition – very much like Crow.
Bone Monkey is articulate and resourceful, well-read and well-travelled, yet in the telling of his story the creature has given away almost none of that capacity for visceral shock with which he first arrived in Sutherland’s world. Some of the narrative incidents may seem to have been scooped from the heap of mythic material to which many poets have recourse (‘Emblems from the Wolves’; ‘Apollo, Marsyas, Bone Monkey’; ‘The Blacksmith made me’), but this poet knows exactly what she’s doing with such matter, tonally as well as formally, in the mastery of line as well as of diction. Here’s the opening section of ‘Apollo, Marsyas, Bone Monkey’, which places the precision of plain speaking in the service of rococo horror:
Intricate work; those long ears,
the pocks on his bulbous nose,
took patience and a steady hand.
The intimate folds and crevices
were tender and whitened with yeast.
He was thorough and took his time.
Yet Bone Monkey, also like Crow, leaks ambivalence. The purpose of the poetry is to call him out, to expose him as forlorn, needy as a babe, an outsider who craves a share in humanity, even though he confuses sex with violence, love with war. When Bone Monkey falls in love,
he rocks her rocks her riding
all her dreams he loves her
loves her not
and when this lover becomes pregnant,
It might be his
Can he shake her
like a rattle?
Even so, at the end of ‘Lullaby’ (the third poem in the sequence), Bone Monkey is encountered by the unflinching gaze of the other – his own infant – as he:
offers his teat to its searching mouth,
and feels it tug and worry for the truth.
Who’d want a daddy like me? he croons
to the eyes that open to stare him out.
The sixth and final poem in this sequence ‘Bone Monkey in Love’, called ‘Desire Lines’ (quoted in full just below), drags the reader to this place of psychological exposure, then makes him/her complicit in the remorseless stripping-off of layers:
The dark breaks open a long scar
from heart to groin. The skin is peeled
to the tenderest flesh, peeled and peeled
though your finger drawing down the line
finds that path of least resistance.
It’s worth saying that the striking quality of the poetry is well served by the book’s production, in an unadorned legible font sitting in plenty of white space on good quality paper. These things matter, especially when the work is this good.
What’s impressive about the collection is on the one hand its refusal to step too far away from Monkey in order to take or to give comfort where none is to be had, and on the other the capacity to riff apparently endlessly on situations and occasions for Bone Monkey to display his prowess, his protean identities – as in the sequence ‘Bone Monkey in Illyria: an English Gentleman Abroad 1846’, which is ironically witty and beguiling by turns, and brilliantly realised:
I found a good specimen of a Serbian woman,
alone in the woods on her way to market,
her hair dyed black and twisted to one side;
she wore, like the Greeks, a tight under vest,
a purple velvet jacket, embroidered in gold and silver,
a treble row of ducats around her neck
and a silk petticoat which slipped through my fingers
like the river Morava. [...]
There’s a breathtaking relish in the evocation of images, personages, scenarios, throughout the book; in ‘In the beginning’ Bone Monkey has to undergo a metamorphosis or moulting in order to regain his youth: the virtuosic performance of slitting his own throat in order to walk out of his old skin is accomplished in front of our eyes by the confidence and poise of the verse. The poet’s vivacity of line and lexis is how and where her emotional work is done, the work of invoking, accommodating and challenging disintegration, death of the spirit as well as the flesh. Inside several poems nestle scenes of the implacable fate that dementia wrought on Sutherland’s relative – the surprise is that in ‘Vespula Vulgaris’, for example, Bone Monkey momentarily assumes the role of carer rather than perpetrator:
when she wakes
he soft-boils an egg
and parts her lips with a spoon
yolk lines a lip crease
he loosens the edges with his nail
picks at the oily flakes
he puts three spoons of sugar in her tea
clips on the beaker lid
and offers her the straw
And in ‘Bone Monkey at the Allotment’ it’s in the guise of gardener that:
His nail has dipped and bitten into flesh
that so often happens he mutters
as he rubs the peapods one against the other
his urine finds its way by dribs and drabs
from slackened penis to transparent bag
He floats he calls her but she won’t come
This is a book that, in times to come, I fear I shan’t be able to do without.
Lesley Saunders is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Walls Have Angels (Mulfran Press 2014). Lesley also leads poetry workshops, and undertakes editing work as well as book reviews.