We’ve written about the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor elsewhere on this blog, and a new poem by Rebecca Gethin, ‘The Mermaid Chair’ addresses it again in our anthology Lines Underwater, due out this September.
Rebecca has lived with her family on Dartmoor for nearly thirty years, and has been a teacher most of her life. Until very recently she taught in a prison, and she now runs writing classes on the outside. Her first collection River is the Plural of Rain was published by Oversteps Books in 2009; her first novel, Liar Dice was published by Cinnamon Press in 2011 who this year brought out her new collection, A Handful of Water. She is hopeful that What the horses heard may make an appearance next year.
We spoke with Rebecca about her work, and about speaking to the mermaid at Zennor…
As well as your poem ‘The Mermaid Chair’ which will appear in our anthology, you have written another poem about the Zennor myth, called ‘Mermaid at Zennor’, which was published in your collection A Handful of Water. What is it that made you return to this myth a second time?
“In those two poems I wanted to explore the idea about how this elemental pagan symbol was made acceptable because it seemed utterly incongruous to find a mermaid in a church. She is difficult to find unless you know where to look because the piece of oak on which she is carved is the side-piece of a chair.
“The legend beside her claims she is holding up a mirror (implying she is vain and empty-headed and thus the plague of poor innocent menfolk) but as mirrors were not invented in the 15th century when the bench was carved this isn’t possible!
“In his story the Fauna of Mirrors, Jorge Luis Borges refers to the fact that mirrors allow one to see in to other worlds and this feels more likely for the message of the mermaid. I thought it might be the moon that she was holding up. Only the church scholars would never admit to either! In her other hand it is claimed she holds a comb… I’d suggest it is a trident if it were three-pronged.
“There are many stories from around the country of mermaids who fall in love with men and have to sacrifice part of themselves to endure life on land until the call of the sea is so strong they are impelled to leave their human children and return to their element. Whichever way you look at it these ‘mermothers’ have to make painful sacrifices.
“I felt that her femaleness was the clue to her escape. Also, looking at her in the dim light of the church, her eyes and her breasts and her mouth have clearly been scored out at some time but she has a beautiful rounded belly. It gives one’s feminist thoughts plenty to chew over. And this led me to consider her in the light of the Virgin Mary, another mother-figure whose sexuality is removed and who experiences terrible loss.
“The church at Zennor, by the way, is dedicated to St Senara who, it is said, was herself washed up in a barrel on the coast nearby. She had done something (fallen in love with the wrong man perhaps, got pregnant maybe) that infuriated her father who, consequently, bunged her in the barrel and threw it in the sea like an ancient ‘honour’ crime… it was, of course, a miracle she survived. So it would be natural to think she must be a holy saint. I love and believe in such old stories.
“And I will probably keep on returning to this mermaid myth, as I do water – as I explore new ways of writing about it and to encompass everything I can think of to say about the element and about the people and the creatures that live in or near its edges. I have always written a lot of poems exploring the ideas that seas and tides, and that rivers give me, my first collection being River is the Plural of Rain. (This collection contains much more of the sea in it than River!)”
You often talk about water in terms of modern science – for instance in your poem ‘River Schrödinger’ in A Handful of Water you write ‘impossible to keep hold| of a handful of water| flowing downstream| or to isolate its particles| a wave of light…’ We thought the language of Schrödinger’s conundrum integrates so seamlessly with the idea of a handful of water: it’s both there and it isn’t. Could you tell us more about what scientific vocabulary means to you when it comes to water?
“Oh, so you found the title of the collection! I chose that line because it seemed to sum up everything I wanted the collection to be about… as you say, both there and isn’t! The subjunctive! (And above all, I wanted the title to be drawn from within the body of the words and not a title of any one poem.)
“There is a line in an Emily Dickinson poem, ‘The Brain is deeper than the sea – ’ Isn’t that a big thought to think? I think the brain is often far wiser than we realise and sometimes provides a transformational conjunction of ideas if we let it happen. I like research and I like using precise words and also think scientific concepts are marvellously metaphorical and charged.
“In this poem I was fascinated by how a river stays in the same place and is even named, while its raison d’être – i.e., its waters – keep disappearing out to sea. I am no scientist by any means but water of all kinds feeds my imagination: I am impelled to look for new ways of writing about it. The science and culture of water is really incredible, that it holds memories, that it is made of different molecules and yet turns into this magical stuff we call water, that people are christened with it, that wells are considered holy places. Our brains concoct so many ways of describing it.
“This particular poem is actually about my sister who died very young. I have often wondered how very different my life would have been if I had had a sister as I feel she is both here with me, and also obviously is not. Yet she died more than fifty years ago and very few people even know of her. But I think, looking back, we must have been very close… she wasn’t quite two and I was just three. I have always felt that a piece of me is missing…and yet my whole life has been lived without her. But I too forget most of the time that piece is missing. The metaphor of the river and the Shrodinger idea just felt the most precise way I could think of to encapsulate that feeling… as you put it so perfectly yourself.”
You read your Zennor poem to the mermaid chair in Zennor itself! Did she hear?
“Funny you should ask… I really want to say that she did. The church, fortunately, was empty at the time otherwise I would have had to think the poem to her which would have been almost, but not quite, the same thing.
“I changed the third person ‘she’ to ‘you’ as if I were addressing her. I honestly felt that she had died and as I am uncertain what I believe about the dead being really dead and no longer able to tune in to us I am in two minds about this. But what I do think is that we hold those who have died within us like an anagram that makes us what we are.
“The church did feel quite charged at the time and I myself felt thrilled to have read it out loud to her, just in case she really was listening. Is she part of me (and all of us), is she my missing part, who knows?
“The funny thing is the same day I read that poem to her I spotted a school of porpoises arcing off the Zennor headland, something I have never seen before and which I have always longed for. It did feel like a benediction.”
A limited number of copies of Lines Underwater are currently available for the special pre-order price of £9, before the launch in September. They are available in our shop.
‘Jenny Haniver’ is the mysterious name given to grotesque composite fish-creatures made by sailors. They were conventionally made from skates or rays, presumably because these are among the most anthropomorphic sea-creatures easily obtainable from a boat – compare Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin’s haunting still life ‘The Ray’ (below), where the dismembered fish hovers in the background like a lacerated human soul in torment.
Jenny Hanivers overlap thematically with ‘strange fish’ – curiosities from the sea displayed at fairs and markets for money. Strange fish might be either outright composite fakes or bizarre fish believed by their exhibitors to be genuine – in The Tempest Trinculo mistakes Caliban for one such, in the process evoking a contemporary English consumer culture of exotic objects:
A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.
Jenny Hanivers also have obvious connections to mermaid fakes – many ‘sirens’ were made from sewing a monkey corpse to a fish corpse, or indeed assembled from the ground upwards like craft objects (as with the talismanic merman at London’s Horniman museum, which seems to have had a religious significance). This strain is the less Pre-Raphaelite image of the mermaid in history.
Where exactly Jenny Hanivers get their bizarre name is not clear – in The Fabled Coast (previously reviewed on this website), Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood give the term’s origin in ‘Jenny’ (as in female, like a ‘Jenny Wren’) and ‘D’Antwerp / D’Anvers’ (‘from Antwerp’, where they were supposedly manufactured). Wikipedia gives an uncited emendation as ‘jeune d’Anvers’, so they are not gendered, but rather precisely aged. But it’s still not entirely clear what their purpose was – clearly they had a commercial value, since they were made in a trading port and (presumably) sold to sailors as souvenirs; perhaps they also had uses as low-level fakes giving credence to sailors’ yarns. I think, with their evident strangeness, they also have something of the talismanic about them – in a harsh natural environment like the sea, you need all the help you can get.
Jenny Hanivers tie together many of the ideas running through this project – they are hybrids (albeit man-made) and they speak to an ancient tradition of myth and legend surrounding mermaids, mer-creatures and the sea. They also appear to have had a commercial value, which is a telling point in the light of our last trip to Deptford Creek (a key trading port), as well as in some of the discussions we’ve had about the commercialisation of the mermaid in the twentieth century. It’s interesting, too, that they appear to have been gendered as female. I thought I’d have a go at making some.