Contrast and Contradiction: Review of 'Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament' by Geraldine Clarkson


With its sensual language, Geraldine Clarkson’s second pamphlet draws the reader into its oneiric world. In ‘Nuala, Nuala, Nightwatchman’s Daughter’, ‘Days Round like the Moon’, ‘Triptych’, ‘Bridal’, and ‘the last thing’, the book has an artery of references to Christianity, more specifically Catholicism, and opens with a poem creating a sense of otherworldliness, ‘I had a red silk cloth for a mother / …We lived at the end of a / stick.’ (‘Biography’)

This otherworldliness continues in a myriad of ways throughout, and held me captivated even in places where I didn’t fully understand all I read. The reader is lured by the language, surreal qualities and unusual decisions in relation to punctuation (in ‘a young woman undressed me and’, there are no upper case letters, giving a sense of hastily recorded memories shared intimately).

Imagery is powerful and memorable and creates a sense of an inner world,

Last night I dreamt I was a cake, a squat brown gateau
dimpled with cherries above a piped creamy smile. Inside,
falling-away fudge, and smudgy… 

                                                ‘Mise en Gâteau’


she touched my lip with a shapely thumb: shhh
don’t fret. her voice like jinxed june breezes
in lime leaves. and then. her voice like rills rushing over flint 

‘a young woman undressed me and’

 There is a beautiful musical quality to the poetry, exemplified in the title poem,

… (they mate, like carapaces, in parentheses),
Dora feels coolness in new places, lifts a reused
razor shell, mother-of-pearly and straight

‘Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament’

and also in ‘A-Man-at- a-Bus-Stop sees a Perfect ‘O’’, where, in addition to the title, every line begins with ‘A’, followed by ‘m’, (Amanatta, American, ampersands, a mutilated, a mayfoil,  Amitriptyline, amateus, A.m.), and reaches a crescendo with ‘amo / amo / amo’.

Reading the poem has a dizzying effect and, placed as it is after two poems dealing with confinement, a sense of hope and playfulness.

It’s a book of contrasts between a sense of containment and freedom, between the inner and outer world, and explores female desire with emphasis on the female body (‘a young woman undressed me and’, ‘caress’, and ‘The thing about Grace and Laura’).

It’s a short but sumptuous pamphlet to be read in one go at first:  lose yourself in it, then return and peel back the layers, dive underwater, revel in the world, in the confinement and the escape.

Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament by Geraldine Clarkson, 38pp, £7.50, smith | doorstep 2016, The Poetry Business, Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S12DS