Review: Song of the Sea God by Chris Hill (£8.99, Skylight Press, 2012)

‘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).

Miranda Mourby

Miranda Mourby

The Fabled Coast, by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood, Random House Books 2012, £20.00

There are a lot of church bells submerged around Britain, particularly in the south. Bells are said to have drowned off Boscastle, Cornwall; St Ouen’s Bay, Jersey; Bosham, West Sussex, Dunwich, Suffolk and off Blackpool, Lancashire in the North, though in St Govan’s Head, Pembrokeshire, they are not drowned, but encased inside a stone.

A 'Sea Bishop' from Gulielmus Rondeletius' Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

A ‘Sea Bishop’ from Gulielmus Rondeletius’ Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

Most of these are tales of marauding Vikings / neighbouring villagers / generic heathens, whose attempts to steal the bells end in divine retribution as bells and boats sink together. But in Dunwich it was coastal erosion that took the bells; once a bustling port, with eight churches (all sounding of a Sunday), this ill-fated town sunk over the centuries until in the nineteenth it had just 250 inhabitants, 12 of whom were eligible to vote.

Despite this, it continued to return two MPs until the Reform Act of 1832. Some claim these auspicious 12 voters had to visit the site of their old town hall in order to cast their ballot – in boats. Archeological explorations of this drowned city continue to this day; photographer Neil A White’s ‘Lost Villages’ project documents modern-day Dunwich towns, such as Skipsea, North Riding in Yorkshire.

In Bosham there was an attempt to bring the drowned bells back up again, effected through a symbolic troop of white oxen. At the last minute, the bell dropped back into the sea, supposedly because one of the oxen had a single black hair in its tail. Another version of the story has it that, the women having been told to shut up (being bad luck), one could not restrain herself; by shouting ‘Oop she comes!’ as the bells emerged, she condemned the bell to the deep forever.

All of these bells are said to ring on – in Bocastle they can be heard by drowning sailors; in St Ouen’s Bay they warn of an approaching storm and in Bosham they ring in chorus with their former companions in the parish church. The Pembrokeshire bells sound from within their stone, which ’emits a metallic sound when struck’. It’s a strange idea – drowned and buried bells sounding from sea and rock right round the country.

The unknown sea

‘There is no occupational group with more tales than sailors’ says Sophia Kingshill in the introduction to this delicious collection of sea-yarns ‘from around the shores of Britain and Ireland’. Of course, we have more shore than most, as shown in Shakespeare’s oft-quoted description of Britain as ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’ – a sea which ‘serves it in the office of a wall’.

The sea can indeed be protective, and even life-giving – in Kirk Michael, on the Isle of Man, the saying ‘No herring, no wedding’ was once a common proverb, since if the herring stock fails, young Manx have no money to marry. ‘This was literally true’, add Kingshill and Westwood, ‘as proved by comparisons between the marriage registers and the fishing records’.

As a result of this, as much as in contrast to it, the sea is equally frightening and unknown – even today we know less about the deepest parts of it than we do about outer space.

In consequence, and quite reasonably, many of the legends and traditions detailed in this book focus around sea-deaths, storms and how to avoid them: in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, you should never set sail on a Friday or Sunday (although Sunday is lucky in Prestonpans, East Lothian); a priest on board is bad luck, being too convenient for a funeral; a black dog seen before boarding is a portent of doom, especially in Peel, Isle of Man, where he might be the Mauthe Doog; a woman on board is bad luck.

There are also intriguing ways of guaranteeing good luck at sea – in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, there is an eighteenth-century report of a ‘small circular cavity’ in the pier into which a sailor’s wife or lover could piss, ‘with a view to appeasing the waves and obtaining a favourable breeze’.

Though many of these might seem like relics from an older time, Kingshill highlights hubristic sinkings – the Titanic, of course (said to have been seen at the site of its sinking on occasional April 14ths ever since) but also the 2012 Costa Concordia – to remind us that we are not such complete masters as we might like to believe. 

Mermaid folklore and legend

Mermaids are, naturally, peppered throughout the collection, which is ordered by British region. Most accounts divide into fairly clear categories: there are the ‘strange fish’ – hideous creatures that were popular fairground attractions from the sixteenth century onwards, some of which can be explained with reference to genuinely strange creatures like rays and skates, and others that remain a mystery.

Some were shameless hybrids: one ‘siren’, exhibited at Bartholemew Fair, London, turned out to be nothing but a dried monkey’s head and body attached to a fish’s tail. Fakes like these were known as ‘Jenny Hanivers’, for reasons largely unknown, though Kingshill and Westwood suggest it may derive from ‘Jenny d’Anvers’ – ‘d’Anvers’ as in ‘from Antwerp’ (a port where they may have been manufactured); ‘Jenny’ as in ‘female’ (like ‘Jenny Wren’). A Japanese example of a similar thing is on show at South London’s Horniman Museum.

A strange fish - a 'foul thing' seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

A strange fish – a ‘foul thing’ seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

Similar to this category are the fishermen’s discoveries that now appear to have more rational explanations: the one in Yell, Shetland that had smooth and silvery-grey skin, ‘hairless and without scales’, which now sounds like a manatee or dugong, or the ‘Sea Man’ in Skinningrove, North Yorkshire that ate nothing but raw fish and ‘expressed himself only in shrieks’.

Then there are the quasi-objective descriptions of ‘genuine’ sightings. One account, from a schoolmaster in Sandside Bay, Highland, described ‘a figure resembling an unclothed human female’, sitting on a rock and combing its long hair ‘of which it appeared proud’. The schoolmaster wrote into The Times with his account, which was convincing enough to persuade none other than his contemporary, Sir Walter Scott, that ‘the existence of mermaids is no longer a matter of question’. These are sighted all over the British Isles, but particularly pop up in the Highlands and Scottish islands – where, surely coincidentally, there are also large numbers of vocal seals.

A particularly bizarre twist on this strand of mermaid ‘sightings’ is the one from 1820s Bude, Cornwall, which tells of a student named Robert Hawker who swam out to sea and sat on a rock draped in seaweed (for hair) and oilskin (for a tail), otherwise naked. Holding a hand mirror, he proceeded to sing as loud as he could to draw local attention; he kept up the act for ‘several nights’, to the wonderment of his neighbours (who were, apparently, completely fooled), until eventually he grew hoarse and swam away. He went on to become vicar of Morwenstow, also in Cornwall, where his biographer records him going to church ‘generally followed by ten or more cats, which used to sport about in the chancel during the service’.

Mermaids also appear as vengeful or otherwise powerful spirits – the difficulty of passing Orford Ness, East Anglia, is apparently the result of a vengeful mermaid’s curse; in Knockdolian, South Ayrshire, a mermaid is said to have killed a baby after the baby’s mother destroyed the mermaid’s favourite seat (she was fed up of the siren song keeping the child up all night). Elsewhere, mermaids bless ships in return for good treatment, and even intermarry with humans: the mermaid Lady of Gollerrus (Gallarus, County Kerry in Southern Eire) marries one Dick Fitzgerald and has three children with him. Though she is eventually tempted back to the sea, in the nineteenth century she was ‘always spoken of as a model wife’.

A mermaid saint

But perhaps the most extraordinary mermaid tale in the collection is that of Liban (or Li Ban), an Irish girl whose home in Larne Water, County Antrium, was flooded in the sixth century, killing everyone except the girl and her dog. After a year underwater, Liban became lonely and prayed to be transformed into a salmon, so she could swim in a school.

Her wish was half-granted: she became a mermaid and her dog became an otter. She lived underwater for 300 years before being caught by St Beoc. She was given the choice between living another 300 years or being baptised and going to heaven – a choice also offered, though less happily, to the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Liban chooses the latter option, and the site of her burial saw many miracles performed over the successive centuries, leading to her canonisation as Saint Murgen (meaning ‘sea birth’).

The Fabled Coast is bursting with stories like this, lavishly illustrated and its tales told with all the relish of an old sea-dog. Working methodically through the British Isles, Kingshill and Westwood provide a whistlestop tour of the coastline as well as the legends themselves, pointing out that:

‘…all things supernatural favour the territory linking one state with another […] The shore is another liminal area, joining earth to water, known to unknown’.

Britain being a country with ‘more edge than middle’, it is an ideal setting for all sorts of sea-tales, and The Fabled Coast is a delightful concoction.

The Fabled Coast is available to buy online at Amazon.

‘Estuary’, edited by Harriette Lawler and Agnes Marton, Moon and Mountain 2012, $59.95 hardcover, $44.99 softcover


'Estuary', edited by Harriette Lawler and Agnes Marton

‘Estuary’, edited by Harriette Lawler and Agnes Marton

please click on the images in the gallery above to enlarge

Just as an estuary is the interface between land and water, ‘Estuary’ is built around the metaphor of  ‘a confluence of art and poetry’.  Each page pairs a poem and an art work, in a fabulous moment of symbiosis, fluid interchange, and synchronicity, and the crystallisation of two distinct yet related worlds. An innovative work, ‘Estuary’ also includes scannable barcodes that transport the reader to online videos of the poet reading their work, or the artist at work in their gallery or studio. ‘Estuary’ thus enables a confluence of the printed and digital worlds also, allowing them to live in harmony rather than playing on perceived antagonisms between digital media and the printed book.

One of the striking things about this volume is that it is a place where metaphor is concrete and powerful. Concepts are inextricable from the metaphors that poets and artists have for them, and from the landscape of the estuary. The estuary does not just represent thought, but helps to mould it. In JP Reese’s beautiful poem ‘Sand Dollar’ (pictured above), for instance, shifting sands sculpt, and bring distinction to, the speaker’s thought: ‘ The sand moves, sculpted by wind.| Endings clarify, chasten’.

This collection also brings out the uncanniness that eventuates when two disparate worlds – land and water – overlap. Indeed, Freud’s original definition of the most uncanny involved a description of walking across the bed of a lake where water once was. Kathleen Jones perfectly captures the overlaying of land and water in ‘The Estuary’ (pictured) when she speaks of salt dissolved not in the sea but in the air, and land that ‘wander[s]’ and ‘swills’. Her estuary, that ’empties and fills,| empties and fills’ evokes the temporal nature of the estuary: it is at one time land, and another, water. Imagining these two states of the estuary at once leads to precisely the uncanny experience of walking on dry land underwater. As Ágnes Lehóczky writes in ‘Balaton 2: Spiral’, with a perfectly placed line ending that tips the reader suddenly the right way up, making them realise they had been upside down, the estuary is ‘vertigo,| in reverse’.

Many of the poems in this book are wonderfully surprising. My favourite line comes from ‘Sand Dollar’: ‘I am the arid bone of flowered stars’. With the word ‘arid’ we might well predict the next word ‘bone’, but the movement from ‘bone’ to ‘flowered’ to ‘stars’ is totally unexpected, leading and shaping the reader’s thought in ways it would not possibly go alone. The same goes for Meg Tuite’s startling evocation of sound, an unwieldy instrument, and silence in her description of her mother’s girdle in ‘Unsheathed Behind Locked Doors’  (pictured), ‘The constrained texture of an accordion’s wings| Without the music’, and Lehóczky’s simple statement ‘stars and snails have something in common’. There is so much energy in the language throughout ‘Estuary’, perhaps most so in Agnes’ Marton’s sonorous ‘Apesanteur’, where ‘partless’ echoes ‘Harbour’ and the speaker has ‘no planiverse, no maniverse| no know-all, just naked verse’.

If there is one thing we have learned so far at Poems Underwater it is that writers love to use the sea as a way of evoking the highs and lows of society, commingling and clashing material cultures. They do this pervasively by simply listing objects that jumbled together by the sea (as Linda Ann Strang does in her ‘Wedding Underwear for Mermaids’, reviewed earlier in the project). And ‘Estuary’ is no exception to this celebration of the disparate objects of our society, and the power of the water and the silt to mingle them and to make them monochrome (Mani Bour’s art work beside Lisa Gordon’s wonderful ‘The Uneven U-Turn Poem’, and Pia Lehmann’s piece beside Reese’s ‘The Sand Dollar’, both evoke the weird shapes and part-objects unified by the colouring silt). In ‘Zones of Convergence’, Pippa Little succumbs to this love of collecting as she lists  ‘sea glass and souls, bloated ships’ cats,| jellyfish and hag stones,| tampax applicators, drums and sleeves| kettles and car parts, cans of beans in Cyrillic alphabets’.

‘Estuary’ is a gorgeous book to own, full of surprises and of verse held taughtly in the hands that alters the contours of the mind.

Copyright Notice:
All art work and poetry presented here are excerpts from the book “Estuary: A Confluence of Art & Poetry.” They are copyrighted by the artists and poets and may not be copied or reproduced in any way without the express written permission of the respective artist and poet. The excerpted pages are copyrighted by the publisher Moon and Mountain and may not be copied or reproduced in any way without the express written permission of the publisher.

Purchase ‘Estuary’ Online

The Editors

Agnes Marton is a Hungarian-born poet. She has been working in publishing since 1991.

She participates in exhibitions and art projects: ‘Opposition’ (USA), ‘Flow’ (Switzerland), ‘So What’ (New Zealand), ‘Stone Project’ (USA), ‘Gateway Project’ (USA), ‘Arts et Jardin’ (France), ‘Windows for Burns Night’ (UK), ‘Dharmic Angels’ (UK), ‘European Sculpture: Methods, Materials, Poetry’ (Sweden), ‘For Rhino in a Shrinking World’ (South Africa), ‘Appeal 2012’ (South Africa), ’Wool Symposium’ (Spain).

She collaborated with French sculptor Mani Bour and Japanese/American artist painter Midori McCabe. Both collaborations have been featured in London art magazines. Now she is in collaboration with Polish artist painter Malgorzata Lazarek.

Her Publications include ‘Sculpture/poésie’ (France); ‘Gateway’ (USA); anthologies and literary magazines in the USA, in the UK, Finland and Hungary; ‘The New Encyclopaedia of Hungarian Literature’ (co-author); filmographies; translations.
Her most recent publications are ‘Estuary: A Confluence of Art and Poetry’ (USA, poetry editor and contributor); ‘Poems for Pussy Riot’ (UK), ‘Binders Full of Women’ (UK), ‘Shorelines’ (UK).

She’s a member of the Federation of Writers Scotland, the English PEN and the (Germany-based) international Sculpture Network.

Harriette Lawler

Art editor and designer Harriette Lawler is a sculptor who has shown her work in the USA and in Europe. After living and working in New York City for 20 years, in 2003 she relocated to the tiny mountain village of Jemez Springs, New Mexico, USA, where she currently resides. She also operates a guest retreat in her home there. During her career as an artist, she has curated and organized many exhibitions, was a co-founder and co-director for two artists’ cooperatives, has taught children’s art classes in New York, and is currently a member of the European based artists’ group 3rd Paradigm. Her publishing credentials in New York City include work at Rolling Stone Magazine, The Village Voice, and Popular Mechanics Magazine. Books published are Privatsphären”“Gateway: An Artists’ Time Capsule”, and of course “Estuary: A Confluence of Art & Poetry”.

Life Under Water – Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008, £7.95 paperback

One of the minor questions of this project is whether you say ‘underwater’ or ‘under water’. The first suggests a distinct space – a ‘body’ of water, somewhere you might become immersed. The second, by contrast, identifies the water as something you can be ‘underneath’ – a line, a demarcation, perhaps. Under water you drown; underwater you swim.

Maura Dooley’s Life Under Water is definitely ‘under water’, and the water – often welling in an eye – often acts as a prism through which the world can be perceived differently. In ‘Dulwich Picture Gallery through a Veil of Tears’ a pair of gallery visitors, one bereft (‘missing her missing her’), both looking, perhaps, at that gallery’s collection of Poussin’s landscapes, or Murillo’s beggar children, wonder ‘how it was done exactly, were there pencil marks? /  Your swimming vision may have added something to the conviction[.]’. The tears that ‘made this life a nothing’ for the lonely friend leave ‘only art’, which is thereby unpicked to spot the working.

‘Dulwich Picture Gallery’, like many of Life Under Water‘s poems, is firmly rooted in Maura’s adoptive South London – the ‘veil of tears’ is both the altered perception of tear-filled eyes and what many ironically call the Vale of Lewisham – ‘not a valley exactly, more the morose plains of south London’ – visible from the turn-off East at the edge of leafy Dulwich Village, where it signals another point of separation. Indeed the ‘through’ of the title could refer equally to perception (looking through) and journeying – though when the travellers leave the Gallery they find ‘the road ahead a blank’.

The insistance on geographical location recurs throughout – ‘the Common’ (pointedly capitalised, though deceptively non-specific – Clapham, Wimbledon or Tooting?) appears in ‘A Tune for Dave Smith’ as in the Twelfth Night-inspired ‘What You Will’, in both instances as a haven for urban wildlife and a clearly marked out physical space. In ‘A Tune for Dave Smith’ this is compared with those vaguer, more conditional spaces between people – ‘

the water might be still for a moment, /

I would walk over it to see you.’ – which are so shaped by angles of perception and ways of looking. ‘Familiar Object Seen from an Unusual Angle’ looks at just this, while the mini-collection ‘Four Chambers’ looks at the heart as (alternately) Halal meat, science project and mantelpieced Valentine.

This precise-yet-blurred geographical siting also accompanies a shrewd political sensibility that locates these poems perhaps ‘Under Water’ but also within an apparently clear time and space. The Auden-inspired ‘The Old Masters’ refocuses Breughal through a post-9/11 lens – ‘something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky‘ – where Icarus is no longer falling into the sea, but onto hard ground. There is something of this ground even in the physical layout of the poetry, which has a clearly spatial significance – ‘From Where I Stand’ describes ‘the comma / and the full stop / afloat / on my childish horizon’, with the one flat, the other ‘Steep’ – at the culmination, the child-speaker glances back, disappointed, to see ‘oh, just a speck in the eye‘, a play with proportion and size that emphasises the created aspect of the poem-worlds we are invited to explore.

‘It is the breaking of the waters that begins it all’ begins The Source, the collection’s epilogue – or culmination – and the phrase is repeated throughout this longest poem, where waters breaking shift from birthing to creation and back again. ‘And God said, let the waters under the heavens / be gathered together in one place, / and let the dry land appear: and it was so‘. There’s something about that sense of division, separation, that seems to tie this accomplished collection together.

Life Under Water is available to purchase online at Amazon.

Composer Leo Geyer and librettist Martin Kratz tell us about their opera ‘The Mermaid of Zennor’

‘The Mermaid of Zennor’ is a chamber opera, performed to great acclaim in 2012. It was composed by Leo Geyer and written by Martin Kratz. More information about the opera can be found on the Mermaid of Zennor website and a video of the performance can be watched online.

Leo (L) and Martin (M) took the time to tell us (in italics)  all about moomaid ice creams, centuries old carvings, and what the figure of the mermaid means to them in the twenty first century…

‘The mermaid of Zennor’ is a nineteenth century legend, is that right? Can you tell us what drew you to the legend?

L: I think what really attracted us to the legend was the place itself.

Zennor is a small village in Cornwall; it is a beautiful place but also remarkably unchanged. The village buildings sit on a shelf almost on top of the ocean. You cannot see the beach from the village itself, as the land folds away so suddenly. At the centre of the village is The Church of Saint Senara, which is said to be at least 1400 years old.  Inside the church there is a chair with a carving of a Mermaid which dates back 600 years. Just below the villiage is Pendour Cove which is where the Mermaid was supposed to have lived. It is actually almost impossible to get down to the cove without some fairly heavy-duty climbing gear. So there seems something quite secretive about it. It is difficult to put into words but when you go to Zennor the mermaid tale suddenly feels very real.

M: Also, I think it’s true to say that the initial inspiration came from Leo eating a Moomaid ice-cream, while on holiday in Cornwall. He looked at the label (a sort of mermaid cow) and wondered what that was about, and checked the place out. Once you’re there, it’s impossible to escape the legend, the two seem inextricably bound up, as Leo was saying. I had a lot of trouble writing the libretto (in Manchester) until I visited Zennor, and then large parts of it wrote themselves.

Moomaid ice cream

Moomaid ice cream

One of my favourite passages in the libretto is ‘In the church above there stands a chair.| A carving, ancient and unreal.| In the dark, her face obscured,| scratched from our memory.’ Is this a description of the famous mermaid bench in St Senara’s church (I’ve never seen it)? Could you tell us more about the relationships between real and fantasised places in the opera, and especially the ways landscapes are created with words? I keep thinking of how Morveren keeps using words to change the landscape into a marine one, for instance by replacing the word ‘bracken’ with ‘kelp’ when she echoes Walker’s words: ‘Under the bracken tiny hearts| beat faster as I approach’…. 

M:  Yes it is a description of the chair! You should go see it, there really is something unreal about it. The echoing of the different landscapes (on land/ underwater) happened quite naturally. Something about Zennor, and perhaps the amphibious nature of the mermaid, lead me to write this constant echoing and mirroring of land and sea, reality and fantasy, memory and full presence.

L: The whole opera essentially explores the relationship between myth, memory and reality. The audience is left to decide whether the fisherman returns home with the mermaid or in his confused state walks into the sea and drowns.

M: In terms of how landscapes are created with words, those were my favourite parts to write, and my favourite parts of the opera. Those again are largely taken from my notes sitting on a rock in Zennor. I was really aware of the bracken hiding things underneath it. There was a distinct sense not only of you sensing the landscape, but also of you being sensed by it and I wanted to get that across.

 Could you tell us about the process of composition and collaboration as you worked to realise the legend onstage? Did the reality of staging it and materialising it change the way you understood the legend of the mermaid?

L: We spent a long time perfecting the story, and spent around a month and half throwing drafts around. I wrote some sketches, but didn’t really start composing the music till Martin had finished the libretto. When setting the text, I did have to take things away as well and occasionally reorder or reword (with Martin’s consent of course) phrases so as to work with the musical narrative.

I don’t think that our ideas of the story changed much when we staged it. But we were careful to consider the staging carefully when we were drafting the libretto.

M: Exactly, most of the staging considerations took place before I even started writing. The main themes of how we understood the legend, like that it was going to be a modern-day retelling, caught our imaginations quite early on, or things like the question of the tail, which we quickly decided to ignore…

Your image of shells splintering is also a compelling one. At one point as Matthew holds the splintering shells in his hand we hear ‘a memory’s edge is in his hand’ from both Walker and Morveren, denizens of two very different worlds. Can you tell us more about this image of the shells, and memory physically breaking through the skin? Matthew says ‘we are in some borderland| With these splinters in my skin’…

M: The ‘borderland’ is a response to the mermaid chair. If you look at a picture of it you’ll see the separation between fish tail and woman is this incredibly neat line, and I felt quite strongly, that in this day and age, we should know that those sort of neat separations are complete fantasy. So to make the mermaid ‘real’ it was important that the area between fish and human on her abdomen is not so clear cut, that the scales peter out gradually. In the end, the mess of tiny shell splinters remind Matthew of the scales on Morveren’s body, the way it looks on a ‘real’ mermaid, as opposed to the figure on the chair.

You talk about a ‘dramatic collision’ between the 21st century and the old Cornish legend. What does the mermaid mean for you in this context?

The mermaid bench in St Senara's Church

The mermaid bench in St Senara’s Church

L: I think mermaids generally are something we think of as characters of the past. Despite the age of legend, we wanted to capture how real the legend feels in modern day Zennor.

M: The opera also asks is there any room for mermaids in the 21st century. I suppose we are sort of saying there is (or we wouldn’t have done the opera), but now they are loaded with a whole new set of meanings: people’s responsibility towards the sea and the environment, ideas of storytelling and guarding our literary heritage (oral literature and written)… One of the most interesting discoveries I made writing the opera was that the logo for Starbucks is a mermaid. It would be a shame if the idea of the mermaid has been reduced to nothing but a paper cup floating on the ocean.


Leo Geyer is currently on his 3rd year on the Joint Course at Manchester University and the RNCM, where he is studying Composition with Dr. David Horne and Conducting with Mark Heron. Recent projects include a commission for the Olympic 20×12 New Music Weekend at the Southbank Centre, an operatic aria for Opera North and a piece for the Manchester Camerata..  Leo has been awarded the SCYM Composition Competition 2009, DSO Young Composer Award 2009, Junior Trinity Prize for Composition 2009 and 2010, Finalist St. Giles Composition Competition 2010, Serenata Winds Composition Competition 2011, Rosamund Prize 2011 and the RNCM Gold Medal Award for Composition 2011. Last year Leo wrote an opera – The Mermaid of Zennor, which has been described by the Times as imaginative and beautifully shaped. Leo has conducted all four performances of the opera, including the sell-out premiere production at the RNCM in 2011 and the most recent performances at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2012 at the London Riverside Studios. In addition to conducting Manchester University’s orchestras and ensembles, Leo also co-founded the Constella Orchestra which has been described as one of the UK’s newest and most exciting student-led classical ensembles (London Student Newspaper, 2011). Constella have now completed their debut season, which has included a performance at the World Event Young Artist Festival 2011 and Beethoven’s Violin Concert with the internationally acclaimed soloist Simon Standage.

Martin Kratz was born in the UK, but his mothertongue is German. His poetry has appeared in The Rialto and Magma Poetry. He collaborates regularly with the composer Leo Geyer, and their work together includes the chamber opera The Mermaid of Zennor. He lives in Manchester where he is currently writing a PhD on the language of touch in contemporary poetry. An new article on writing a first libretto, will be forthcoming in Agenda. 

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids, Linda Ann Strang, Honest Publishing, 2011, £9.99 paperback, £2.33 ebook.

The sea is rarely itself in Linda Ann Strang’s Wedding Underwear for Mermaids. Though mermaids and the sea do appear in this book, Strang often falls back on the wider metaphoricity of the sea and of the mermaid as sites of shifting transformation, of margins and of marginalisation. Thus, in their liminality, the assaulted bride, the migrating swallow, and the unfortunate supporting actress in a horror B movie all resonate with the mermaid figures on which the book finally comes explicitly to rest.

Strang’s verse is like the sea’s currents in that it jangles together objects from disparate material cultures: tools, fruits, jewels, and body parts are plucked from their homes and rearranged together to form new accreted structures, new margins, new borders. We see, for instance ‘headlands of apple and pear’ forming before our eyes. The result is a poetry book characterised by exciting and unexpected juxtapositions; my favourite is the ‘butter, nutmeg and a spanner’ with which the grandmother of ‘The Grandmother at the Ends of the Earth’ makes an apple pie. There is often a sensuous appositeness to these images; Strang writes perfectly of ‘the fig| and semen flavours of the sea’, for example. At times, she is able to consummately sketch out a character with just a few carefully placed strokes by taking for granted the reader’s awareness of rich veins of fairytale and folklore, customised of course by their own memories and experiences. When she writes ‘I was a princess| under the table; my concern was a handful| of broad beans in a dented soup ladle’, for instance, I can see precisely this little girl in vivid detail.

This uberty of sensuous images might give the cumulative impression that the many characters in Wedding Underwear for Mermaids are comprised only of startlingly juxtaposed objects. This can be a little frustrating: one yearns to get to know the beleaguered, desiring women as stable, distinct subjects in their own right. If only they would stand still for long enough for us to get a good look at them, rather than changing in front of our eyes! ‘I am a hybrid like the swallows, transforming myself as I fly’, one states. And yet this seems to be a deliberate move on Strang’s part. The difficulty we sometimes face in gaining insights into her characters’ deepest thoughts brings home the fact that these women are ignored and consigned to the margins of the relationships in which they find themselves (though they often take ‘centre stage’ as victims). Strang evokes the eroding, eliding effect on her female characters of relations with (almost overwhelmingly male) others in a fantastic pun when she describes being in a relationship as being ‘paired down’. Strang’s speakers often describe themselves as occupying ‘a supporting role’, or as being a peripheral character in ‘someone else’s story’. In ‘Mixed Media’, this theme is attacked head on, as the speaker becomes no more than a bricolage of various flimsy materials, readily assembled and given meaning by other people rather than defining her life for herself. ‘I’ve been assimilated by her argument’ she states, before concluding that ‘the serigraphs and lithographs| will absorb us like somebody else’s life’. In this book, to describe is not to approve, and Strang powerfully describes the figure of the mermaid and of the woman who has come to observe herself as a distant other.

Yet Strang does not shy away from immediacy. See the brutal evocation of the lack of fluffy femininity in motherhood in ‘Unmanned by Mother’s Day’ – ‘blood| and pain, vomit on my breasts, and piss’ – and the mouth-kiss of complete rhyme – ‘track’ and ‘smack’ – in ‘Becoming Scottish’. Her work reaches towards the gloss of violence that shines in other representations of brutal and circus-like performances of female sexuality, such as the prose of Angela Carter (one of her avowed influences) and the poetry of Dorothy Molloy.

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids can be purchased online at Honest Publishing.