2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2: Nancy Campbell

This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Enitharmon Press for providing a copy of Nancy Campbell’s book for review purposes.

The concluding poem of Nancy Campbell’s collection Disko Bay is, I think, a good place to begin. In ‘Giving Up on Capitalism’, an unnamed boy makes kayaks and sells them for one, then two kroner (these poems are mostly set in Greenland). He hands his earnings to his mother who buys basics like coffee, sugar, needles, cotton and, more ominously, whisky. If this is the nirvana of capitalist enterprise it hardly gets beyond subsistence level and then only to poisonous effect. On the third occasion he instead decides to construct a kayak for himself: taking the few remaining skins, he “pegged them down deftly / and paddled away”. The point of rejection is simply made, but the simplicity has a mythic, typological impact. The poem’s form is simple, repetitive, like a piece of folklore, an oral transmission perhaps, and – characteristic of the whole collection – the vocabulary is plain to such a degree that the reader is impressed by a paucity or poverty or essentialism (depending on how successful you think it is). Certainly this is a book unlike any other you’ll read this year, drawing on myths and landscapes of the far north (the opening section of the book has poem titles in Greenlandic first, then English). Its impact is often impersonal but Campbell’s knowledge derives from her several residencies in the region and she deploys it in a skilful and poetically knowing fashion.

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Above all, these poems convey the harshness of scraping a human existence in the Arctic Circle, perhaps most obviously in the section called ‘Ruin Island’. An epigraph quotes the Eskimo, Osarqaq: “Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore do not always tell of beautiful things”. Several poems follow the exploits of Qujaavaarssuk, a heroic figure and general strong man, who is reduced to singing a dirge at the troubled fishing grounds and is advised by “a man who is not his father” (a break in traditional forms of transmission here?) that the one thing to be relied upon is that “hunger will come of its own accord”. ‘Hospitality’ in such circumstances may consist of feeding guests “the kidneys of a black seal / as the ice harden[s]”. Qujaavaarssuk’s immediate difficulty is the presence of too much ice (a deliberately ironic comment on the shrinking ice caps of our day): he sees the shadows of seals moving beneath it and sets out “to the ice edge to follow them” but what Campbell is interested in (these are contemporary poems, not slavish myth-reproductions) is the failure of the hunter. In ‘Danger of Snow Blindness’, Qujaavaarssuk returns for the first time “his sled empty, his kamiks [boots] clean”. ‘The Last Seal’ opens:

There was nothing left to feed the dogs.

Qujaavaarssuk shot them, one by one

and fed them to each other.

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To the contemporary reader, what lies largely unspoken beneath these chilly, often curt, unsentimental chips off a mythic block is, of course, our own awareness the adverse effects of climate change. ‘Ruin Island’ becomes apocalyptic in tone so that the words spoken by a hunter that conclude the sequence, words spoken by Jorsias Ammonsen in a real interview conducted in 2006, are presented as the reply of a hunter “who can no longer hear the question”. In this way, Campbell tragically ironises Ammonsen’s proud, nostalgic, heroic, perhaps hopeless comments:

When we were young

no place seemed too far away for hunting.

 

We travelled a long way,

too far to come back the same day.

We slept in stone caves

and were cold in winter.

 

Nothing is too harsh

when you are accustomed to it.

Nancy Campbell 2012

Campbell tries to remain true to the plain directness and dignity of such a voice in most of these poems. The figure of the poet seldom intrudes. When it does she is trying to learn the “soft uvulars” of a new language which seem like “dark flocks of sound I’ll never net, or say”. Difficulties of expression in one language are compounded by problems of communicating across distance to her own homeland: “Since I can’t post a letter this far north, / I’m sending you an Arctic snowstorm”. ‘The Night Hunter’ is typical in its use of a simple lexis – snow, door, harbour, boat, blood, sled, knife – and a repeating form of verse as if the polar climate has sheared away more baroque elaborations of language and form. At first this feels cramping, but as Campbell persists and insists this really is what she intends, the simplicity seems more likely to put us in touch with the elements, the elemental, the bottom line of harsh Arctic existence.

With figures like the hunter Qujaavaarssuk so prominent you might anticipate a macho sort of world but the harsh conditions seem to teach an underlying humility (even to men) and Campbell has a number of female narrators who are clearly no push over. In ‘The Seal People’ a seal hunter’s wife watches the vindictive spirits of killed seals approach by boat and though threatened by them her voice does not falter through three steady quatrains, the verse’s repetitions here expressive of her firm courage. ‘The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun’ is a major poem (its form is a sestina with its obsessive recurrences). Here, a hunter’s wife gives him a tinny Christian memento for protection. The hunter is more concerned with the reality of death and an apocalyptic sense of the world’s end (Campbell’s chosen rhyme words are tin, angel, window, box, candle, darkness). But his wife insists on the need for “light”, transforming herself into a “vast white wake / of stars” which might be considered angels, though the man himself finds it hard to shrug off his pessimism: “At the world’s last window, I light another candle”. The shamanic implications of their exchange are more explicitly played out in three translations of crude Greenlandic Qavak songs, originally collected in the 1950s. They are spoken by a “terrible mother” a “female shaman” and an omniscient “wicked woman”, the latter advising the only way to tackle an enemy is to bite off and employ her clitoris as an arrowhead. Neither the blunt obscenity or implied moral judgement can hide the suggestion that this remote culture clearly understands the importance of the female in ultimate survival.

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One of the impressive things about Disko Bay is that it is eco-poetry without shed loads of landscape description. Those vindictive seal spirits carry a powerful ecological message in their “round, black eyes” – less for the Greenland hunter and his wife (whose place and role within a traditional, sustainable Arctic ecosystem is be unlikely to unbalance things) but to us with our petrol engines, plastics and carbon complacencies. Another success of the book is its use of myths redolent of Nordic and North American materials without distracting echoes of Ted Hughes’ trickster figure Crow. In ‘Fragment’ a severed raven’s wing in the snow is enough to imply the global problem: “Never to breed, never to scavenge / on scarlet seal hearts by the ice edge”. It is brave of Campbell to delay the more eco-explicit poems to later sections of the book. Part three sets off from the premonition that “the future is full of riddles” and ‘Conversations’ conveys both the mystery and the certainty of climate change: “I don’t think it is one thing / I think it is a combination of things / a combination of everything”. The riddle-subjects appropriately include a tsunami and an iceberg but not the dirty complexities of the ever-hungry, seldom-satisfying capitalism rejected by the boy who constructs a kayak not to be sold but for his own setting out in this fine, unusual book’s concluding poem.

Read more on Nancy Campbell – in discussion with Forward Arts Foundation.

 

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – Ron Carey

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press)
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Revival Press for providing a copy of Ron Carey’s book for review purposes.

On the cover of Distance a male figure has already travelled well down a track through flat, open countryside. He’s heading determinedly away from us, hands thrust in his coat pockets. I think this is Ron Carey and though the image pretty literally evokes one aspect of the book’s title, it contradicts the stated direction of the poems within which hope to “bring us a little closer”. An epigraph from Elizabeth Burns suggests a more philosophical “sense / of time and place dissolving” so that (in an image that would have pleased Antonio Machado) “we are all / drops of water in this enormous breaking wave”. Ron Carey’s first collection sticks more firmly to the former, more commonplace, more personal of these formulations but is at its most interesting when it ventures an almost magic realist evocation of the latter.

The dissolution of strict linear time provides occasions for many of the most appealing poems here. They are acts of recall of a twentieth century childhood in Ireland (in this Carey invites comparisons with Heaney and, before him, Kavanagh). The boy who is the focus of these recollections is both highly observant and very imaginative. His conviction that there is a leopard in the coal-shed as he is tucked up in bed is grounded in vivid details of it tiptoeing “through the tin-pot Dulux jungle, on / Quick, painted feet”. ‘Breakfast’ is also troubled by imaginary big cats (lions this time) who chase his father from the house, their “claws pinging the spokes of [his] bicycle”. The idea of a ‘water-table’, as discussed by Driller Flanagan and the boy’s father, unleashes images of a real “table of Marian blue; its top shimmering” but when the geological reference is clarified for him, the boy swears never to ask “questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers”. We see the birth of a certain type of poet here, though Carey’s long wait for a first book reassures us that such unbridled (if vivid) fantasy will not be the whole story. So watching Aunt Babbie wring the necks of chickens, while blithely questioning him about his day at school, gives rise to more troubling childhood experiences as the birds’ “squawking souls” pursue him home and (the writing of the poem confirms) continue to haunt him forever.

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Everyday remembrance seldom loses sight of the gulf between then and now, but Carey’s poems occasionally record more profound moments of the collapse of the temporal. ‘Moving’ records the day a family move to a newly built housing estate. All their belongings piled in a horse-drawn cart (old world), as they approach the house the boy’s mother runs ahead with a “100-watt Solus” light bulb in her hand (new world). The electricity that runs metaphorically through the boy’s hands as he is given the horse’s reins and literally through the bulb filament so that the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” form an instantaneous circuit in which the whole family experiences renewal, the mother now “a young girl” calling from an open window ahead. It is the intensity of the emotions which supercharges such changes in perception. ‘Kilkee’ sees the six-year-old boy partaking of the grief of another Aunt’s broken heart, lying like lovers themselves on sand dunes: “He put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky till it entered the water”. This drawing down of blinds is a fantasy of sorts but far more profoundly linked to the truth of the moment than the boy’s water-table imaginings. It’s in ‘Upstairs’ that Carey brings this technique to its apogee where the boy (now grown but of an uncertain age) agrees to wear his father’s old coat and lie beside his ageing mother. It’s her desire to re-live earlier days and intimacies that dominates, but the poem cleverly reveals the boy’s own uncertainty of identity: “We pretend to sleep, Danny and me”. He feels he can’t get up, though she’s now asleep, “Because she will not let go of his hand” (my italics).

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The figure of the father is a powerful one and recurs throughout the book. We see him relishing “pig’s toes with a pint”; elsewhere he comes home from work: “Your cold, great hands shocking / Our new skins; your goat’s kiss rough as love”. Even more memorably, in ‘My Father Built England’, he works as an immigrant labourer, a “solid Paddy full of gristle”, learning how to harden his hands with urine, then with the onset of World War Two, returning to Ireland to work for Hogan and Son. He is one of many characters who populate this enjoyable book – Miss O’Mahoney, a pub quiz-master, an irregular Postman, several Aunts, Grandmother and Grandfather – most of them firmly enough grounded in close observation to avoid caricature. And it’s the quietness with which Carey achieves his aims which is notable. New technologies are alluded to in the context of the past. ‘Churchfields’ makes familiar use of a photographic image but in ‘Background’ an image of a Grandfather is set as background on a computer screen, allowing Carey to “click a short-cut icon on his broad shoulders” in another striking image of the collapse of time differences. Elsewhere, the sweep of a dry stone wall is compared to the curve of a “Large Particle Collider” (unlikely, but successful). And a visit to Patrick Kavanagh’s grave yields an encounter with his ghost, in fact on film, “rasping and jumping on a screen”.

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Unfortunately, there is a rather soft middle to this book in the sections titled ‘The Beloved’ and ‘New Oceans’. The first seems a rather brief, miscellaneous collection of poems only vaguely linked to the theme of love and includes an up-dating of the Icarus myth and an incongruously Yeatsian lyric, ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’. ‘New Oceans’ appears to be an ill-judged venture into exotic climes and idioms (I think Central America). But there are more interesting poems in the final section of the book, ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’. Here Carey is less intent on conventional narrative and (in contrast to the youthful recall of earlier poems) focuses on the moment as it passes and on last things. ‘Lineage’ is a confident celebration of the Irish landscape – confident enough to admit ignorance of names as well as to leave the poem more open-ended, with no evident pay-off. ‘Catching My Death’ is short-lined, elegant, unpushy. Sounding more like Michael Longley here, the boy has grown up, encountered much:

 

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

 

Mortality is now envisaged as a return to the earth, though some sort of reawakening into the future is imagined:

 

Until

The earth warms

And the soil opens

To the resurrection of the worms

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Philip Gross, Carey’s supervisor on the South Glamorgan Creative Writing MA course, has written of the tenderness and detail of his work and this is true. He has a long list of competition wins and placings behind him and individual poems are touching and colourful and well-done. Distance covers a great deal of ground between childhood and old age and Carey is above all honest. But as a first book there are trails here which come to nothing and others which promise poems of a more adventurous kind. I hope that’s where the man in the coat is really heading.

An interview with Ron Carey about his work can be read here. 

Reading Archive: April – June 2016

Up-dated June 2016

This is turning out to be the place where I often admit my lacks and ignorance. Elizabeth Bishop – apart from 3 or 4 of the obvious poems – has always been something of a blank spot with me. I have been re-reading her Complete Poems and understanding maybe my problem lies in getting to like her earlier work before A Cold Spring (1955). What I do begin to appreciate more clearly is her modesty, accuracy of observation and own-furrow-ploughing determination as a poet.

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Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop has been helpful with thoughts such as “Bishop’s instinct was to look hard enough at nature to lose herself in it – and thus, as in the Biblical paradox, find herself”.

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As has Seamus Heaney’s ‘Counting to a Hundred: on Elizabeth Bishop’ (from The Redress of Poetry). He argues, at her best, she reveals how “obsessive attention to detail can come through into visionary understanding  [. . .] intense focus can amplify rather than narrow our sense of scope” (something I have written about in recent thoughts on McGilchrist’s ideas about right/left brain work).

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I’ve also been reading two collections by friends . . .

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Lynne Hjelmgaard’s A Boat Called Annalise (Seren) is a sequence of love poems to a husband and a sailing boat and vies with Bishop in some of its evocations of tropical harbours: “We fell asleep with the roosters, / the waves, rumblings in the bay”. For a land-lubber like me, there are powerful portraits of life at sea such as ‘That Feeling of Boat’: “We confide and trust in twenty tons, / talk to it, nurture it”. ‘White Clover’ is a delicately symbolic poem dedicated to the late, much-missed Dannie Abse.

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Danielle Hope’s Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham), which I mentioned in an earlier blog, again shows how effective the Mrs Uomo character is (a near relation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito) as a vehicle for social commentary which is quirky, engagingly funny and incisive, particularly about the NHS for which Hope works as a doctor.

Up-dated May 2016

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Last month it was heavy-Hughes (as you’ll see from my April up-date below) so half following that lead and half influenced by the 400th anniversary celebrations across the media, I have been swimming my way through Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. First published in 1971 and up-dated in 1991, Hughes is right in suggesting it’s been hard to “place” the bard amongst the “poets in English”. It’s not just because he wrote mostly drama (if mostly in verse) but also that critics retreat before his work feebly flapping and gesturing towards a special case. So Hughes’ “looting [of] portable chunks” from the plays serves largely to confirm two things: his plays consist often of the most astounding poetry and that – yes – special case status is hard to withhold.  But Hughes is onto something suggesting that Shakespare’s Catholicism in a world of Puritan jihad (Hughes’ word) has much to do with it. An astonishing read – whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

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Gill McEvoy’s HappenStance chapbook, The First Telling, is terrific. Told with exquisite poise, it recounts the after-shocks of a rape, the adjustments, the progressive self-forgiveness, the therapy sessions. You need to know the sequence is punctuated by poems about birds – this is not a plain sort of confessionalism, but rather work of great artistry, to be recommended for its use of the blank spaces on the page as much as for its exploration of traumatic experiences.

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McEvoy’s book was noticed (winning the 2014 Michael Marks award); Simon Richey published Naming the Tree (Oversteps Books) in the same year and I’d not heard of it till I heard him read at Poetry in Palmers Green. Richey writes about abstract matters – language, time, consciousness – and material events with a wonderful precision and approaching a philosophical elegance. Something of the impersonality of TS Eliot is matched with personal attentiveness to detail – highly recommended.

Up-dated April 2016

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It’s been a heavy-weight Ted Hughes month since I’ve been reading Jonathan Bates’ biography over several weeks and then supplementing it with the poems themselves. The Bate is far more comprehensive than Elaine Feinstein’s earlier biography and if nothing else shows how much material Hughes left behind (100,000 pages of unpublished drafts) so the academic exploration of it will clearly take many years. On the poetry itself Bate gets a bit irritating in relating  just everything back to Plath –  even the late work apparently shows unmistakable evidence of his continuing obsession with her!

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Crow remains extraordinary though it makes more sense to see it as Bate suggests as the unfinished epic that Hughes had hoped to complete. There was to be a phase of restoration but Hughes never managed that – perhaps because this was too close to the two suicides of Plath and Assia Weevil.

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I’d missed Remains of Elmet when it was originally published. With Bate’s help and Hughes’ own Note from 1993, it’s clear now that this is a very coherent and powerful portrait of the region of his childhood.

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I loved Gaudete when it first appeared in 1977 as I was in the first flush of my Hughes period! Most commentators (including Hughes it seems) now consider the ‘filmic’ loosely-constructed narrative poems as not quite the real thing. It’s the strange, tough little songs of Nicholas Lumb that conclude the book that pay more dividends.