Janet Sutherland’s third collection, Bone Monkey, features a trickster of that name. Sutherland develops a whole mythology for him, from creation through to death, told in sonnets, ballads, prose poems and free verse. In the opening lines of the sonnet, “Prequel”,
Out of the void of chaos came the Earth
and then Bone Monkey sprang to life.
Three strands of darkness, and a streak of light
were wound inside his head. His heart
made what it could of that. At least it chattered on
in rhythm with the shrieks of other forms
dragged from the reek and mire to consciousness.
In no time, Bone Monkey is expressing his “strands of darkness”. In a marvellously concise and engaging piece of storytelling, Sutherland has him meet a man in the poem, “Red Hibiscus”, who offers him one of two packets, the first containing a knife and trinkets; the other, eternal life:
I’ll have the largest, please Bone Monkey said
and straightaway unwrapped the gift,
picked out the prettiest knife, to test the blade,
and plunged it in his benefactor’s chest.
I’ll take the smallest too, he told his host
and stole it from the dead man’s open palm.
There’s a real menace to Bone Monkey – he’s mad, bad and dangerous. His life story is so brutal and yet so beautifully told in such a matter-of-fact way that it feels slightly illicit and sullying to read it.
There are a couple of sequences in the collection – “His exposition on the art of memory” and “Bone Monkey in Love”. In the sonnet, “Lullaby”, in the second sequence:
Who’d want a daddy like me? he croons
and rinses the stink of the mother away,
offers his teat to its searching mouth,
and feels it tug and worry for the truth.
It’s so beautifully diabolic with many moments of dark humour, as in the prose poem, “Left in the dark”, in which Bone Monkey’s “ticker”:
…showed no sign of giving out and even on
exploratory jaunts up Ben Nevis, that mountain with
its head in the clouds, where he tested the limits of his
endurance by walking the Carn Mor Dearg Arete in
his plimsolls, he’d only been bothered by the cold
mist seeping in through the cracks in his privates.
The titles add to the absurdity of the tale – for example, “Bone Monkey at the Allotment” and “Bone Monkey applies for a job in forensic acoustics”.
Sutherland exercises great control over language, using sound, rhythm and rhyme to great effect to evoke revulsion and disgust. “In the beginning”, opens:
Bone monkey had grown old–the time had come
to shuck his skin, to slither out plump as a suckling pig,
to slip home leaping like a lord.
The poems in the sequence, “Bone Monkey in Illyria; an English Gentleman Abroad 1846” draw on the travel diary of Sutherland’s great great grandfather in mid-nineteenth century Serbia. I found these poems did not quite gel with the rest of the collection, perhaps because they have a separate origin.
But before too long, Bone Monkey restores us to feelings of a sort of gleeful repulsion. At the end:
his urine finds its way by dribs and drabs
from slackened penis to transparent bag
a tether at his wrist draws down a flood
of salty liquor It won’t hurt they said
opening a vein to water down his blood
his anus buds a haemorrhoidal bloom[.]
All in all, this is a grotesque, disgusting and unnerving read, filled with understated violence and malevolence. I found it utterly beguiling and a thoroughly enjoyable read, re-connecting me with my own shadow bone monkey. It is lyrical, technically adept, and strangely beautiful.