-Reviewed by Caroline M. Davies–
People have been writing about mermaids for centuries but Lines Underwater is an anthology which brings the mermaid into the twenty-first century.
It started as a collaborative project, Poems Underwater, between Laura Seymour and Kirsten Tambling early in 2013 with visits to three places in th UK replete with mermaid histories and stories. They decided to invite other artists and writers to contribute to the project, resulting in over forty contributors to the book covering a range of disciplines. It offers exactly what I would want from an anthology; fresh work from writers with whom I was already familiar and an introduction to new voices.
Lines underwater also includes multi-media elements. There are scannable barcodes so you can access songs and short films. These are also available via the website if, like me, you don’t have a smart-phone. Twitter finds its way into one of the short stories, #mermaidsrock by Piotr Cieplak, a witty and cautionary tale about our continuing obsession with monarchies and celebrities. I read it whilst all the fuss was going on in the UK media about the birth of a British royal baby. Cieplak’s story provides a new twist through the inclusion of social media and even the mermaids are not what you’d expect.
The anthology is organised into four chapters covering various aspects of mermaids in story and myth: ‘Stories of washed up things, ‘Nets, nerves and wires’, ‘Bricked in and crossing borders’ and ‘Skin, scales, skirts’. Rebecca Gethin’s poem gives us the fisherman who carved The Mermaid Chair at St St Senara’s church in Zennor;
‘Vicar assumed he must have communed
with an angel, asked him to carve what he’d seen.’
Katie Hale reclaims the Sirens from being wicked women who lure men to destruction into much more sympathetic creatures:
‘We couldn’t help ourselves but sing.
To see men’s faces lift,
and hope rekindle in their eyes –
who wouldn’t give the gift.’
The deaths of the sailors in Siren’s Song are a peaceful release and this was a poem I kept going back to for a re-read.
Mermaids are used as a metaphor for contemporary issues and dilemmas. Most memorably, Jo Stanley’s ‘Adaptation’ recasts the mermaid as a WAG, the girlfriend of a racing driver undergoing surgery to transform her tail into legs. It provides an incisive commentary on celebrity culture and cosmetic surgery and also includes veterans from the war in Afghanistan and transgender surgery:
“Mainly I visited Stella, who was in supported housing in Slough. She was feeling lonely for all that some of her army mates visited between tours. Seeing their injuries upset her but she loved feeling one of the boys again, as they tried to drink themselves sane.”
Like much of the work this is a long way from the somewhat clichéd traditional view of a mermaid as an enchanting woman with a fish tail. Lines underwater is by turns playful, thought-provoking and above all packed with original work.
I leave the final say with Charlotte Higgins’ ‘Ariel’:
‘No one ever told you
that you cannot sing these new words
any more than a man can waltz on the surface of the sea.’