The Chalk Butterfly — Jane Monson
Responding to the fragile borders between climate change and mental health to evolve into conversations around trauma, change, care and the natural world, The Chalk Butterfly explores images of home and the paradoxes around our simultaneous care and un-care for nature and language. Working backwards through the butterfly’s life cycle, each phase examines the tipping points, vanishing or fractured boundaries between our environments (internal and external), reflecting on the damaging ways we step on both the earth and humanity. Yet in these precise, exquisitely realised prose poems there is also celebration of the overwhelming urge to adapt and help life thrive, a turning away from the despair that would accept we might ‘just about manage’ or even fail in favour of moments of transformation.
The Chalk Butterfly carries us on poignant winds through disruptions of the external as internal, and vice versa—how what lies within us is the key to saving creatures whose lives we’re enmeshed with, and how we might instead imagine ‘what we could be inside the colours of open hands’.
Each of Jane Monson’s quietly immersive prose-poems is a light cast on the different facet of a vulnerable, interdependent world. Inanimate things are as charged with sensation and volition as the human minds and bodies that respond, sometimes painfully, to their disorder. This writing leaves us with no choice but to see more clearly; it enables us to care a little more.
Reading Jane Monson’s The Chalk Butterfly is like entering a strange and beautiful world where language takes on alchemical properties and butterflies tattoo human skin with their pollen. These poems are full of walls, but rather than barriers, the walls act as invitations to leverage the ingenuity of Monson’s imagination and the narrative possibilities of the prose poem to transcend them. I found myself enthralled.
These extraordinarily vivid prose poems take us deep inside the tangle of our relationships and our disturbed yet resilient interior lives, while tracing their narrative out into the failed politics of our time and back again. In writing that is sometimes reminiscent of Anna Kavan, The Chalk Butterfly sweeps us irresistibly into those situations and states of mind in which we so often find ourselves damaged and nightmarishly trapped, yet this collection also startles us throughout into realising moments of hope, tenderness and light.
Jane Monson is a witness poet, looking and having to look, painstakingly counterpointing our wilful blindness. Structured around the stages of the lifecycle of the butterfly told backwards and eclipsed by new irregularities and uncertainties, these poems are a narrative of little exposures only revealing the distance they’ve taken you once the whole is realised. They may be about the climate breakdown, but they are invested in the human despite our damaging, destructive ways.
Jane Monson lives in Cambridge as a poet, independent researcher and Specialist Mentor for disabled students at the University of Cambridge. Previously she was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University. Her PhD is on the prose poetry of Francis Ponge and she has an MA in Creative Writing (poetry) from UEA. She edited This Line is not for Turning (2011), the anthology of contemporary British prose poetry which Pascale Petit praised as ‘ground-breaking’, and has more recently edited British Prose Poetry: The Poems without Lines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She is widely anthologised in the UK and her prose poetry and reviews have been featured UK-wide and internationally in Westerly, Fortnightly Review, Envoi, Aesthetica, Magma and Poetry London. Jane’s first collection with Cinnamon was Speaking Without Tongues (2010). Cassandra Atherton, award-winning Australian prose poet and international expert and critic of the form has referred to Jane as ‘the fairy godmother of prose poetry.’
Jane’s forthcoming prose poetry collection with Cinnamon Press, in Spring 2022, is The Chalk Butterfly.
Jane’s work in prose poetry features widely, including:
‘One Foot; Many Places: The Prose Poem’s Art of Standing Still While Travelling,’ Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice, eds. Paul Hardwick and Anne Caldwell (forthcoming with Routledge).
‘The Prose Poem and the Anti-Novel: Unsettling Form in Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes’, EUP Companion to the Prose Poem, eds., Michel Delville and Mary Ann Caws (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2021).
Six Poets; Many Voices, Disability Feature, Westerly Magazine, (Crawley WA, Faculty of Arts, University of Western Australia, 2019).
‘Square of Light: The Artist is Present’, in The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, eds., Anne Caldwell and Oz Hardwick (Calder Press, 2019).
‘Via Negativa’, in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson, ed., Jeremy Noel-Tod (Penguin, 2018).