Polly Atkin’s poem ‘Lake Fever’ appears for the first time in Lines Underwater – an anthology of new art work and writing re-envisioning mermaids in the twenty first century. Here, you can read four more water-themed poems by Polly, as well as her great piece ‘Writ on Water’ in which she explains how water inspires her poetry.
Writ in Water
“I was born and brought up in Nottinghamshire, one of the most landlocked counties in Britain, by two parents who love the sea.
“This is how I came to spend the first weeks of my life by or on water. My arrival four weeks ahead of schedule interrupted the family holiday by the sea in Devon. Instead of changing plans, they accommodated the extra person and carried on. The overwhelming atmosphere of my first weeks was salt air and sand; waves and sea breezes; unsteady footing. The medium of being was water. I spent most of that summer floating on an estuary, neither one place nor another.
“It is this, in my mind, which explains my intense and particular love of water. My need for water. When I don’t swim regularly I dream of it. When I find myself flying in dreams I am really swimming through the thin water of the air. As a child I came to think my very slightly webbed fingers and toes marked me out as the descendant of Selkies – those seal-women who put off their skins for a chance to walk, and love, as a human, and too often find themselves stranded, beached in human form, when their skin is taken from them. It seemed the worst cruelty in the world – not to be able to return to the ocean. I became determined to live by the sea. My best friend and I developed a way to soar underwater we called Mermaid Stroke. I became convinced of my paradoxical nature. I saw myself as a peculiar monster – a big cat happiest in her skin when her fur is scaled.
“For me, a hot day is wasted if it does not include a swim. On land I am clumsy. I trip over my own limbs. I fall off the solid ground. I stumble. My joints are too loosely strung together. When I run I rattle. In the water I am faster, smoother: a completed creature. Comfortable in my body in a way I find rarely, dry.
“At 10 I discovered the wonders of lake-swimming. All that pellucid freshwater; the mountains inverted in the lake surface as you propelled your sleek shape through them. My ideal landscape shifted: there now must be mountains and lakes running down to the permanent sea. I found this in many ways when I moved to the Lake District 2006 to start my phD. I’ve come to think of the Lake District as underpinned, culturally and structurally, not by rock, but by water. It is, as Samuel Baker calls is, essentially ‘a maritime region’. In his Cumbrian poetry, Norman Nicholson conceptualised the fells as constantly tumbling into the ‘sea to the west’.
“This vision – this need for water – to be on it, in it, around it – underpins all my thinking. It appears and reappears in my writing from my earliest childish adventure stories to my latest poems and even my academic work.
‘Lake Fever’ was written during 10 months of self-imposed exile in 2010 as I wrote up my thesis back in Nottingham. It came directly out of a link I made in my academic work between Calenture – a tropical disease believed in Wordsworth’s time to make infected Sailors throw themselves into the waves in an effort to return to their distant homes – and Wordsworth’s descriptions of the inland waters of the Lake District. Alan Bewell describes the Calenture as a kind of pathological homesickness. I began to see in Wordsworth’s work a kind of cold-climate Calenture, a Lake Fever. Then, of course, I diagnosed it in myself.”
Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her poetry has been published widely, recently in Pilot Pocket Book, Magma, Rialto, and 1110. Her debut pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the 2009 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. Her second pamphletShadow Dispatches (Bridgend: Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize 2012. She is happiest in or by water, with the sun on her face.
Debby Akam’s film ‘Girlfish’ is adorning our youtube channel, along with some other excellent works. Debby writes,
‘Girlfish’ induces the ritualistic, meditative mechanisms of travelling between realms, and returning refreshed after connecting with Nature. More at www.debbygary.co.uk
‘Girlfish’ is part of Lines Underwater, an anthology of new artwork, film, audio, prose, and poetry that re-envisions mermaids in the twenty first century. Curious? Get yourself a copy to see!
Phoebe Power’s poem ‘Stella’s Body’ appears in Lines Underwater – get yourself a copy to read it! Here, she explains her inspiration behind the poem, and also lets us read another one of her poems, ‘Clarsach’.
“‘Stella’s Body’ is inspired by the phrase ‘Stella Maris’ meaning ‘Star of the Sea’, an epithet of the Virgin Mary. This beautiful image encouraged me to try to write something that combined the mermaid of folklore with the icon of Mary. For my poem I imagined a woman dense with stars, like a goddess-giant stretched across the ocean.
“A 14th century lyric in English and Latin begins with the phrase ‘of one that is so fair and bright, / Velut maris stella [as the star of the sea]’ (this is set beautifully to music by Benjamin Britten – listen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5mYOPhKO38). I don’t speak Latin, but love those words associated with Mary which appear in medieval texts, like integra, effecta, electa, salutis. Even the sound of these words is pure, star-like, almost icy, washed, salty and marine.
“Several of my poems start with a single word or group of words in mind and try to explore the possibilities of their symbolism, sound and feel. This poem takes the word ‘clarsach’, the name of a type of small metal-stringed harp, and gives it a female persona perhaps also obliquely related to an idea of Mary.”
They lift the girl-harp in a hammock
of silver wire not to touch the ground or snap
a clavicle. Her feet are blades
not pedals. They change the key in naturals
and sharps. On the lawn, she tingles
her clitoris, and notes sprinkle with the grass-seed in the air.
Phoebe Power was an Eric Gregory Award winner in 2012 and a Foyle Young Poet in 2009. Her poems have appeared in Magma, Cadaverine and Orbis.
Meredith Knowles’ excellent photograph of a painted turtle, ‘Casin Lake Turtle’, appears in Lines Underwater, an anthology of artwork and writing re-envisioning mermaids in the twenty first century. We liked this picture because it highlighted ideas of evolution and adaptation in the water, and also because the turtle had a very expressive face. Get yourself a copy to see it! Two pictures of Casin Lake, taken by Meredith, can be seen above. Below, she describes how she took the picture and tells how painted turtles got their names – which is a pretty cool story.
Casin Lake Turtle and the story of the painted turtle
“I found this wonderful little turtle in a shallow, weedy, West Michigan lake. My husband and I had earlier seen some turtles swimming in the lake as we rowed across it, and I decided to try and catch one in a small net. After a long hunt, I caught this turtle and took some photos before returning him to the lake. He was very grumpy with us for disturbing his evening swim.
“As I was completely ignorant about this kind of turtle – and any kind of turtle, for that matter – I decided to do some brief internet research. My turtle appears to be a Midland Painted Turtle, if the images on Wikipedia are to be trusted. The most amusing, if not germane, tidbit I learned about this species is that the males possess such long claws so that they may tickle their mates during courtship. Who knows what else these turtles are into.
“During my turtle research I also stumbled across this Native American story about Painted Turtles, which was recorded in 1916 by Truman Michelson for the Illinois Centennial Commission.”
The Painted Turtle
There was a chief, and he had a fine-looking girl. There was a painted turtle, and he fell in love with the chief’s daughter. But he could not come to see her or get to speak to her, because neither the girl nor her parents paid any attention to him. He kept thinking, “How can I win that girl?” And day after day he came, but still they did not notice him. Finally he thought, “If I would paint up, they would notice it and ask me why I painted.” He painted up and went to the chief’s lodge and the girl fell in love with him as soon as she saw him. So he told her to follow him and started off and went to a big river. When she first saw the turtle, she thought it was a human being, but when they got to the water and she saw that it was a turtle instead of a man, she said, “I cannot go any farther with you.” He said, “Come and follow me. You will turn into a turtle the same as I am.” When she went in, she turned into a turtle, but a different kind, a soft shell. Sometimes they name women after this turtle.
“I found this here: http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/nat_amer/post/htmls/popups/be_turtle.html
“I like to imagine that all painted turtles are as cunning as the turtle in this curious story, but my experience suggests otherwise.”
Meredith Knowles was born in England but moved to the US two years ago. She now lives in Chicago, IL and takes photographs in her spare time.
and he half expected her
to kiss like a woman.
Porno tableau: pink
hair mermaid cries pearl tears.
Hunger leaves a stain.
Vision: stoned fish tank
glow, her face pokes out just past
the plastic castle.
What Happens on Tour/Generational Spokes-Mermaid Haibun
I still live in those cold unknowing journeys, eternally half-asleep but
with the deepest recess of my brain violently awake. Everything is passing
unreal when you can’t read road signs or advertising, or even the syntax of
the visual clues a culture leaves for itself. In total night I was walking
through some barely real town, my head barely fastened on. I looked up at
the light bulb areolae as they set the face of a young German
spokes-mermaid gleaming. In the end, I managed to wrestle something about
broadband from it. I slept that night next to the train station because it
was lighter there than anywhere else.
In the station moon-
light, everything is possible
even this mermaid.
William Kherbek is the visual art critic for Port Magazine, his weekly reviews can be found Fridays at http://www.port-magazine.com. His writing has also appeared in several publications produced by the London gallery Arcadia Missa including in the forthcoming edition of How to Sleep Faster. For more informationwww.arcadiamissa.com.
How to Kill a Mermaid
To split her tail, you take her fins and pull.
(There is no blood, but the smell
of rotting fish, and saltwater stinging
in the wound.)
Put her on the land
and make her dance, shedding scales
and stumbling, undressing her skin:
raw and pink and shining like a burn.
Hear her wailing like a curlew,
fingers wrinkled into fists against her eyes,
and tie her wrists
(it will not hurt) –
then push the girl away, and watch her
hobble back towards the sea and drown.
Born in Cumbria, Katie Hale is the founder of poetry project ‘[insert text here]’ (sic). Her work has been published in Poetry Review, The Frogmore Papers and Cadaverine, among others. She is currently studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews, and working on her debut pamphlet. More at: noordinaryblog.wordpress.com
Katie has written another mermaid-related poem, Siren Song, which you can read soon! She said of it:
My writing process various from poem to poem. Where the raw idea originates is nearly always a mystery to me, but the finished piece usually ends up a couple of steps removed from that initial thought anyway. This particular piece presented its own challenges because of the rhyme. In some ways, this limited what I could say, but it was also a generative process: if there’s something you want to say that won’t fit the rhyme scheme, you either have to find a different way to express it, or say something different. This element of rhyme was key to the creation of this poem, and is something I’m being drawn to more and more – it forces me not only to think outside the box, but to examine the box from every angle as well.
‘Since childhood I have loved to be out in the rain,’ confides our narrator at the beginning of this island novel, which is interrupted by the occasional flotsam or a chorus or two, but for the most part is told through the eyes of our marine hermit.
It begins, for no reason connected to the subsequent plot, with a drowning. Not in water, mind, but in pancreatitis:
I remember the moment I died.
The end came subdued, like a doctor on call. There was no sensation. Feelings belonged to a different world—one which had finished with me.
The disconnection, weightlessness and sheer passivity of being engulfed by that region of space known in this project as ‘underwater’ echoes in the language and serves as a metaphor for the passing from life into death. Even the words on the page descend as if through water. For a drowning man, the dark, silence, stillness, and isolation of the underwater makes it a place of liminality between life and death:
the lights went out. Everything was gone. The baleful glow of the night lamps, the red pinpricks on the glum machines No sound, not even my own breathing… Just me in my own in silent darkness.
The disconnection from the overwater world brings with it a feeling of total immersion, described as the ‘only moment I have ever felt in tune with the orchestra of the universe.’ But our narrator is not to be consumed by the figurative underwater yet, and with a ‘florid rush of belonging’, resurfaces back into life.
As we return from the mainland hospital to the island where the story unfolds, the sea continues to haunt the language. Drunk on a golf course, our narrator watches the arrival of a storm with a ‘thrill of impending newness.’ The sea as a source of drama, change, and rejuvenation from above ground, as opposed to the murky stillness of the underwater, is brought to life in what is perhaps the best descriptive passage of the novel. The sky ‘weighed down like a fat man sleeping on a top bunk’ echoes Prufrock’s ‘patient etherised upon a table’, albeit with more slobbery overtones, and the ‘camera click of lightning’ leaving a ‘river tributary’ on the retina is a wonderful image, the seascape so immersing our narrator that it is etched aquatically into the backs of their eyes.
With the arrival of John Love on the shore of this storm, apparently the sea god to whom the title refers, the narrative travels inland. A turning point in the novel may be the revelation that the Ferry pub to which we are taken provides the hospitality of the ‘Little Shepherdess Pub Company Limited.’ The islanders’ connection to the sea is evidently nominal, commercial, and inauthentic. John Love is not himself much of a sea god, more a combination of Christ, John the Baptist, TV psychic, and demented cult leader. The religious satire is hard to miss, with Love a fisher of men who notes ‘Easier to catch fish when something stirs them up.’ Stir them up he certainly does, to the point at which they start to project onto him their sea-salted spiritual instincts.
‘I don’t know much about gods’ remarks an islander, ‘but I know the sea. When I think how a boat engine works, I know what each little component does. No-one can say that about the sea. But we go out to sea in a boat.’ Oceanographers may or may not agree with this statement, but this is not the point. To the islanders, the fear of being overwater, of being suspended and borne upon a body of water both literally and figuratively unfathomable to the untrained eye, echoes their paganistic fear of the mysteries of the spiritual dimension. It is not the power of the sea, or the Other side, that Love exploits but the power of the belief in these mysteries. After his initial tipsy rhapsodies, our narrator admits a fear of weather, as does another character on the island who also fears drowning from the overflow of a blocked sink. When the islanders argue, it is like gulls over a fish, when someone strays from convention they are deemed to ‘swim too far from the shoal.’ Cut off from the rest of society and the main stream of religion, the sea supplies a point of reference otherwise lacking in experience. Our only-child narrator, unable to recall the rivalrous fun of hearing a sibling being told off, instead confesses feeling ‘smug’ when others are ‘in trouble and you’re not – like being tucked up in bed when there’s a storm outside.’ Whether the lack in the islander’s lives is of traditional religion, or of a full empirical education, the gaps in their experiences and explanations are filled by the sea, nature abhorring a vacuum.
It will not come as a great surprise that all does not turn out particularly well for the islanders. Indeed, at one point the plot takes a particularly nasty turn (involving fire, not water), which feels glossed over as the narrator subsequently resumes their observation of the mundanity of island life over the ‘sacrament’ of tea. Once this reader had recovered from this particular episode, however, the story is tightly paced and entertainingly told. The Christ allusions in John Love’s behaviour are at the very least a little cheeky given his indifferent exploitation of the meek, but one assumes these allusions are being made by the character, not the author.
For the most part, the novel encapsulates the bracing, bawdy fun of an eccentrically cold dip at a northern seaside town, the protagonists not so much mermaids as kiss-me-quick sailors. Yet, despite being ‘at two with nature’ the islanders have evidently absorbed something of the mystery and lyricism of the sea which hovers in the recesses of their imaginations. The ‘hallucinations’ of miracles performed by their sea god take place ‘on the shifting cusp where land (meets) water’, and the strange uncertainty of seascape horizons becomes a liminal place of transformation. In this, the drowning underwater space evoked at the beginning of the novel finds a resonance in the overwater spaces where the islanders see their visions of figures in the smoke. Both intersect the physical and mystical, and offer a space of transition. And, if Chris Hill teaches us nothing else, both might yield up a rubber ducky or two.
Song of the Sea God can be ordered online at Skylight Press. Readers of this blog may also be interested in other titles from Skylight Press, such as The Romance of the Faery Melusine: a translation of a 1920s mermaid tale by Gareth Knight.
About the Reviewer
Miranda Mourby studied English Literature at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. She was called to the Bar in 2012. She has excellent taste in hats and sometimes, but not always, coordinates them dashingly with passing London Underground signs. (—LFS).
Jessica Taylor is an artist and art psychotherapist. She is interested in work which enlivens and inspires perception, narrative and memory. She works closely with notion that, within the process of creation, an emergence of the ‘unthought known’ is possible. Details of more work can be found at www.jessicamaytaylor.co.uk
One of Jessica’s pictures, Lost Catch, appears in Lines Underwater alongside Chelsea Cargill’s wonderful short story Gold. She has also donated these five amazing works to the online gallery we are making of mermaid-related art work.
Agnes Marton has contributed a wonderful poem to the anthology, which is currently available to pre-order. In addition, she has allowed us to show you some more of her poetry, along with accompanying art works by Midori McCabe and Malgorzata Lazarek.
Agnes Marton is a Hungarian-born poet, editor, linguist. She also takes part in international art projects. Most recent publications include the award-winning ‘Estuary: a Confluence of Art and Poetry’ (USA; editor and contributor); ‘Penning Perfumes’, ‘Binders Full of Women’, ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’ (UK); ‘Gateway’ (USA); ‘For Rhino in the Shrinking World’ (South Africa).
We’re also posting today about another collaboration between Agnes and Midori – take a look!
Agnes Marton is one of the poets who contributed to the anthology. Here, she describes her collaboration with the artist Midori McCabe (whose recent projects include the wonderful book Estuary). With the kind permission of Midori McCabe, below are six of her paintings, capturing the flows and reflections of water. Unga is inspired by the Navigli Canal in Italy, Dieforella by Schubert’s song Die Forelle (the Trout), and Odori by the Pacific Ocean.
Agnes Marton: ‘Jungelize My Days’
“What made my collaboration with Midori McCabe easy and enjoyable is the similarity between our personalities: positive thinking, searching for adventure and challenges, dynamism (to the extent of restlessness), colour- and playfulness, freedom, absolute honesty; keeping emotions in the centre of attention; making the best of all what we have; finding beauty even in tiny things (a flower, a cloud, a lucky charm) and feeling the immediate urge to show them to others in our own way… A 19-year-old Mauritian poet, Ameerah Arjanee wrote this about Midori’s work:
“Her paintings have a transmuting energy to them, like phoenixes repeatedly burning and being born. Or like rain falling and then draining away.”
“And it matches Midori’s own words quite well:
“Nature inspires me most. I often wonder why; even though ocean waves are repetitive and hit the same sand, they are never the same; I am fascinated by things like this. I would like to paint by nature.”
“On the other hand, just like Björk (whose world we adore; and who is the theme of my poem written for pop culture anthology ‘Double Bill’, to be published in 2014), we would do (almost) anything against boredom; we can’t bear staying stuck. You know the Kerouac quote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” (On the Road).
“We have special projects.
“The images of Midori’s paintings are transferred into high quality silk using advanced laser printer and non-toxic natural dye colours. They are called dancing scarves because they fly beautifully in the sky. They were also showcased in Milan this May.* Midori had another exhibition in Milan this April within the Fuorisalone Milan Design Week, with one hundred of her digital images in glass frame created by “Le Cornici Di Luna.”
“Her forthcoming project is the “Free Hand” Exhibition at the Gallery House, Palto Alto, USA.
“The poem T-shirts I designed myself (using some key expressions from my own poems) have been exhibited in France, in Germany and in South Africa.
“I’ve joined various poetry projects (most recently the Like This Press Austen/Bronte/ Shakespeare Anthology edited by Angela Topping) but I’m editing anthologies (confluences of poetry and visual art) myself too, together with American sculptor/designer Harriette Lawler.
“Midori began studying music and painting simultaneously as a child. She works intuitively, combining colors, textures, and forms into a fluid whole until she can hear the melody.
“Although her forms appear to be entirely abstract, she derives them from elements in nature, books, movies, songs, or everyday objects, each becoming characters in a musical play on canvas. Her artwork is basically her emotional diary. Even when she travels, she always paints in her head… Whatever she sees contributes to her art… colours, forms, movement… so she takes a note, or a photo, or makes a drawing.
“Similarly, I collect impressions and words everywhere… Strange sentence structures, patterns of leaves, traffic signs, evocative names… they might be used later in my poems, sometimes distorted, most often out of context, surrounded by my own word creations. I love writing about mythical figures too, for example about the Icelandic eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Midori told me about Furaibo, somebody who arrives with the instincts but flies away soon: and Furaibo moved in one of my poems, just like shimenawa, the ‘enclosing rope’: lengths of braided rice straw rope used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion. It happens that Midori doesn’t even realize when she gives me inspiration with a word or comment. She posted some photos of Hollow Bean Beach – and later I used this name in my own way as Hollow Dream Beach; she mentioned some strange ice-cream names and this is when I started to write my poem Flavours:
No bounderies in those dreams.
You melt in my veins
from plates and scoops,
scones and cornets, craters.
I’ll never lose your flavours.
Aileron chevalier des vosges du Nord,
pommes de terre nouvelles et girolles.
Lalande de Pomerol,
Clos des Mouches.
Citrussy, Bramble & Hedge Sherbet.
Miraculum Mundi Fudge Torte.
“Midori says, outside Japan people seem to see more Japanese in her work, and more western in Japan… but it is fine with her. As a child, she used to admire the work of European artists, their vivid colours and free forms… however her brush strokes might have been influenced by the form of Kana, full of curves, taught by her mother who is a calligraphy artist. Now Midori uses this kind of brush stroke with various colours. If it is black and white, it may look like Japanese style.
“I grew up admiring the rhythm of Hungarian poems and folk songs. I formed my own diction step by step, I started the recreation of the language for my own purposes, mainly to express the magical knowledge (I believe) I have.
“In my highly visual, dreamlike poems I make invisible processes (cores of life decisions, changes of emotions, birth and death of doubts and fears, the inner fight between our noble selves and our beasts) recognizable, and smile at them, using my poetic inventions (non-existent words and expressions, distortions, unusual punctuation, ’langwiches’ – mixtures of different language fractions) and juxtaposition.
“I talk about mysterious beings, snakes proud of their new, glorious skin, leopards lying in the middle of the canopy dreaming about their new territories and running free in the sunshine, passages leading to different empires, timeless hills of our private Edens… The word-sparing, airy compositions are full of music.
“As I write in my poem ‘Trespassers’:
‘My enladdered words / leading to secret vaults / of your senses. (…) Our bisons on rock walls / before we go on trace.’
“Both Midori and I feel at home everywhere (and lost everywhere, just a little bit, in our own worlds), have friends everywhere, work everywhere. It’s a very reassuring feeling that people in each corner of the world understand our art. It gives us new energy.”
(The title ‘Jungelize My Days’ is from my poem ‘Attraversiamo.’)
*“DA COSA NASCE COSA” Exhibition at Sala Biagi, Libreria RIZZOLI Galleria, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II