a cataract of light
Alice Hiller on language as reclamation in two debuts launched in lockdown by Fiona Larkin and Serge ♆ Neptune.
Dovetail of Breath Fiona Larkin
These Queer Merboys Serge ♆ Neptune
During the past months of lockdown, without physical meetings, many of us have come up against the limits, and opportunities, that language affords. Seeing and hearing each other through the freezing and glitching of social media platforms, catching fragments of phrases sieved through Twitter and Instagram, we have been reaching out – only to slip away again like fishes in water. This elusiveness, and longing, are equally part of the process of writing poems. We try to cohere word and image, sound quality and meaning, in order to communicate, even if only in an unstable, shifting way.
By leaving the fit loose, poetry creates space for play. As readers, we can arrive at experiences of understanding and feeling, that are our own take on the work, and can be reversed, or expanded, in further encounters. Fluidity of this order is central to A Dovetail of Breath by Fiona Larkin and These Queer Merboys by Serge ♆ Neptune. Both were published within the UK lockdown, and are denied opportunities for ‘real world’ readings and promotion – for the time being at least.
In their different ways, Larkin and Neptune negotiate losses, and find in them new beginnings – as the fruit which falls from a tree also carries the seed of the future. With Gaelic for Larkin, and French for Neptune, they are both poets whose additional language is European in origin. The interest of their subjects matters, and emotional landscapes, like those of the poets reviewed by L Kiew, are however unlimited by either borders or national identities.
Fiona Larkin’s A Dovetail of Breath emerges from the hinterland of her father, Michael Larkin’s, death, and also of his original Irish ‘lowland landscape’. Ten poised poems, as compact on the page as folded handkerchiefs, open within the reader’s consciousness to elegise his life and manner of leaving it. They also ask how we relate to ourselves, and each other, through words – whose failures of communication are as vivid in this pamphlet as the connections they permit.
The opening poem, ‘Finistère’ refers to the rocky headland in Spain which was the endpoint of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries it was believed to be the westernmost tip of Europe, hence the meaning the end of the earth. Whereas the speaker anticipates ‘precision / distinct as its name’, in the way that a death might also be expected to be, what she finds instead is both much less clear, and much more filled with possibility:
after the signpost
lettered in blue
after the kiosk
of snacks and tat
a path tapers out
ahead I see nothing
a cataract light
the falling and rising
of the fresh and the salt
wet on my cheek
The transformation is reinforced by Larkin’s choice of diction. The poem’s path starts with simple, brusque, earthed nouns – ‘kiosk’, ‘snacks’, ‘tat’ – designating the limited, material realm. But then it moves into expansive, verb-based imageries calling to mind both the movement of waves against rock, and the shifting, dissolving becomings and un-becomings which suggest both presence and absences.
The driving rhythms of the lines carry the propulsive qualities of walking, and pilgrimage, but also of the mind’s own movements. The ways our thoughts can link and double back, and feeling is tethered and then released, is carried within the weaving of internal and end rhymes. The reader is then taken into the fourth and final stanza where ‘a fold in the cloud / is blunting my eye’, to hear the speaker ask ‘and where can I say / is it finished?’
‘Dendroglyph’, the second poem, takes its name from the artform of carving symbols into trees, especially as practiced by aboriginal peoples. This would be one way in which Catholic inhabitants of Ireland would have defined themselves, relative to the Protestant British land appropriators. Britain’s material rape of the Irish economy led to generations of economic migration, of the sort that brought Michael Larkin to Britain. Within the poem, however, the carving is in fact an amputation, arising from the loss of language resulting from brain injury.
You forget a word.
Its bough is sawn
and down you plummet;
or you cling to its scar,
The trunk-shaped poem devolves down through twenty lines of successive and progressive disintegration. The reader is taken from ‘mouthing the sap / of synonyms’ to finding ‘beech or oak / as strange as / tamarisk,’ and ends in the ‘inarticulate / thicket’ that leads only to ‘a fallen tree, / marked by a plaque.’ In a forest, however, a fallen tree is also the breeding ground for a host of new, mitochondrial life. In the same way, Larkin’s pamphlet explores the energies that a death may release, as well as subtract. ‘Global Aphasia’ begins with the loss of speech but then erects a ‘scaffold of sound’ over the void as the speaker tries to ‘recite you / from footings to thatch.’ She hears her own voice as a child asking ‘draw me a neddy!’ and finds that the words of the past may conjure again ‘your sheltering warmth / in a dovetail of breath.’
The poem has built itself from a litany of specialist construction vocabulary – ‘timber’, ‘brickwork’, ‘pitch’, ‘batten and bond’ – recalling the industry which brought many Irish men and their families to England. A dovetail joint is used to fasten securely two right-angled pieces of wood by slotting their interlocking ‘pins’ and ‘tails’ into each other. The image also calls to mind the gift of life between generations, who are initially tucked into each other, as when a child sits on her parent’s lap – and as we see here, may remain linked beyond the physical separation of death.
‘Patronymic’ follows the speaker ‘back to Lorrha’ where:
you stall on the brink, in the violet
light of leave-taking. Stilled
by this lowland landscape, caught
by the lake that took your father,
let me float white lilies on the water,
Assonance and rhyme lull reader and speaker alike, offering a form of ritualised comfort through the transubstantiation of loss into imagery and language uniting three generations. ‘Off Day’ reminds us, however, that even as forms of reconciliation are travelled towards, the flatness and absences of great grief remain reluctant to be assuaged. Alluding to ‘the time you’ve dropped’, the speaker evokes how loss can make us forget how to inhabit our own selves – in the beautiful simile which concludes the poem:
And here you sit, eyes flicking
like a woodpecker,
examining the day’s long branch,
as if you’ve forgotten
how to tap.
To ally oneself with a woodpecker is to claim life, however, and in this act also to accept separation from the loved person who is gone. Absence is made visible in ‘His Winter Coat’. The poem enters the cave in cloth’ that holds ‘his shoulders’ shape’, and sees the ‘flattened cushion on kitchen chair’ where the father no longer sits. But the speaker ends by leaving all behind, and keeping only the ‘clumsy button’ roughened by her father’s hand. As a seed bursts its husk to germinate, ‘Leave-taking’ is a love song to, and parting from, a former childhood home ‘because its fit is too tight.’ Written as a ritualised prose poem, with an incantatory repetition of ‘I leave it because’, ‘Leave-taking’ it lists the ‘woodchip’ and ‘wallpapered pierrots’, a lawn that ‘fluctuates under my feet’, and the ‘Madonna’ who ‘follows me up the stairs’, but also the constrictions and recollections and absences that push the speaker to say ‘I leave it because I have somewhere else. I leave it at / that.’
The final poem, ‘A Cheerful Letter or Message is on its Way to you. / [Fortune Cookie]’, reads as if addressed both to the speaker, and her missing dead. The slip of cookie paper bearing the revelation becomes a message in a bottle to be launched even with ‘your waterline rubbed out’, and then a ‘a storm of cheer, flung at your prow / like a barrage of life-preservers.’ Mimicking the ways the poems have found their shapes on page after page, Larkin ends:
Can you bear them? Open one.
It will self-inflate, and employ
in its righting movement a breathful
of the words I trust too much.
Simultaneously self-cancelling and self-creating, the image of the life-preservers reminds us that it is only when they are grasped hold of by someone in need that they become able to fulfil their uplifting task. Nonetheless they stand ready – as this concise suite of poems does for the many readers for whom it has the possibility of forming a guide through the dark woods of mourning, into clearings where light may enter. No longer folded handkerchiefs, in the act of being read the poems become paper aeroplanes poised for launch.
In drag, the artist assumes their costume as a sacred carapace to engage and then release their truer or alternate self, as Dean Atta reminds us in The Black Flamingo. The form is hallowed, and made riveting, by the kings and queens who wear its crowns – and the process seems central in Serge ♆ Neptune’s debut pamphlet, These Queer Merboys. Poems including ‘A Queerness of Mermen’, ‘And if we Wanted to Perambulate like Humans do’ and ‘Melusine Boys’ don their finned, mer-selves to realise aspects of queer masculinities into language. They also explore how these exist, and resist, within the sometimes rough, wider societal seas, in maritime landscapes where ‘the sky is a ceiling of white papercuts’ and ‘a smack of jellyfish rises up / to shake the seacrest’.
The opening poem, ‘A Queerness of Mermen’, (from which the two quotes are taken), flirts knowingly with camp gorgeousness and subversion, and expresses a heady homoeroticism. From above, ‘The moon’s orchid / dribbles on the cliffs’, while down below there are ‘tails sheathed / in Murano glass scales, fins serpentine / as fleurs de lis’ and ‘touch becomes / a flurry of honeyed fingers’. This is paradise before the fall – an unselfconscious hedonism joyously realised. The poems which follow document how the queer identities which this seascape engenders and consummates can be found, or remade, in our daily lives.
Neptune cites Richard Scott as a seminal influence. His work would seem also to be in conversation with poets including Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Jay G Ying, who share his multiple language heritage and interest in creating a vocabulary of images to realise queerness and the challenges it experiences. For Neptune, the damage wrought on the oceans by climate change and pollution naturally encompasses some of the assaults which the community, and its individual members, may face when they claim their right to be themselves.
‘Pietà with Merman and / Drowned Body’ opens:
… tail cleft in grieving reverence… i am the
parlance of the drowned, their gasps and
mutterings… crippled venus full of grace… i am
tilda swinton posing naked on a marble pillar at
The poem then travels down through the ‘seanight’s turmoil’ with its ‘bottles, rubber tyres, oil rigs’ to its focus in the ‘moment made of light where you / precipitate… tumble down… urgent… unto / these shaky hands… the wrists bending, finally / to hold you… tail wrapping to keep you / warm…’. This ‘moment’ is simultaneously one of death to the old world and self – and becoming in the new. Rather than offering a straightforwardly happy ending, however, what emerges is a new set of risks, some of which are located unequivocally in how the queer community exploits and preys on its own.
The title poem, ‘These Queer Merboys’, moves beyond the moment of consummation – ‘men took us in their arms cuddled us at first / lips fused to lips’ – to a post-coital aftermath of intimated desecration and alienation:
the sea sprinkled with jetsam
caudal fins operculum gills epidermis
look at what’s left of us
in the cold distance
& rancorous lovers
‘Loathsome’ intimates a vulnerability to self-hatred, as well as hostility from others, which is formed in part by the challenges met along the queer/mer way. In ‘A Child Comes Out as a Merman’, the thirteen year old protagonist announces ‘my voice all jelly – I am a merman now’, only for his mother to tuck ‘her lips again into a blanket of silence.’ The following day his father instructs ‘You shall not lie with a creature of the sea, for they have no soul.’ He later also calls him an ‘abomination’. The young merman resists by withdrawing from family life and ‘sleeping in the bathtub’ with his legs banded together, but this cannot prevent the water in the tub turning ‘cherry’ from ‘the flowers of my wrists’ on one occasion.
Whether or not directly reflecting Neptune’s own experience, this hostile family reception remains a feature of the queer experience globally, as Mary Jean Chan, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Shivanee Ramlochan and other courageous poets remind us. Neptune’s evocation of the intertwined resilience and desolation experienced by some young queer people, and their rightful hunger for emotionally and physically validating relationships, sets the stage for ‘The Merman has had a Plethora of Boyfriends.’ Nine are listed – who have in common their lack of fit with the speaker. They include one who ‘applies the blade to the wrists like a soothing balm’, and another who has to be reassured ‘You’ll get your money back’ with bittersweet camp humour.
Two subsequent poems develop this catalogue of arch vignettes into more detailed investigations of ways in which dates can fail to come off. ‘Think of this as couples’ therapy, he said’ places the reader in a kitchen where the knife-wielding seducer glides ‘in the steam like a starfish’ while the speaker, sits:
his prey, waiting for him
to pull his inners out and suckle on my tissue,
every stomach gland fizzing with joy.
The strength of the poem resides in the impossibility of attributing the ‘stomach glands’ with certainty to either protagonist, in this interplay of fascination and predation. The overlapping enacts how physical lust, in combination with emotional conditioning, have the capacity to disable and enable both at once.
Calling to mind how some communities have been more vulnerable to Covid-19 due to pre-existing stressors, ‘The Floating Game’ gives us a circus master commenting on the merboy’s poor condition. ‘Mr Barnum’ diagnoses ‘parasites spread on fins – laceration and loss of skin may follow’. The speaker details how in response ‘they feed me with pills to fill the chamber of my brain with smoke.’ The ‘smoke’ represents an attempted erasure of selfhood as cure, and later on, ‘they’ll leave low voltage electrodes in water, / a fuzzy assemblage of nauseous fits.’ While the evocation of damaged mental health, and inappropriate psychiatric treatment, have echoes of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, and before that Janet Frame’s writings, this does not diminish the necessity and impact of witness at a time when drugs are being freely prescribed to suppress rather than address individuals’ mental health.
‘Last time my Lover came Inside me’ draws together many of the different strands under exploration, in a terse, direct account of physical rapture and psychic conflict arising in the encounter between the speaker and his now married ‘Lover’:
When he pounded full-force inside me
he shouted her name,
yet moaned at the brusque
friction of my scales,
my viscous fishtail
that coiled around his waist.
I would wear him all over me
like a lilac-red blanket
as if love had flayed him,
lively and scorched.
The textured, raspy diction, and the openings suggested by the elongation of the vowels, bring the physicality of male on male penetration to the page. As with the ‘fizzing stomach glands’ described previously, the lovers become interchangeable in language, reflecting a core motif of queerness – the attraction of like to like, rather than other. While it would be expected for the penetrated party to be ‘lilac-red’ and ‘lively and scorched’, it is in fact the person who ‘pounded full-force’ who is turned inside out and becomes the visible, figurative ‘blanket.’
In the ineradicable world of art, that which was attempted to be denied and concealed is made manifest and permanent. And the agency of this work of witness rises again and again through the poems, in a tide of revelation that enables These Queer Merboys to end with at least the possibility of hope. ‘The Beginning of Dawn’ looks back in order to look forwards, placing itself in the liminal moment:
when amber wrestles with rose
and dampens the sky with colour, in a city
that once whispered I love you the same way he did
on a ferry boat skulking on the Thames.