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.

 

Ecology and Poetry: Review of Michael McKimm’s ‘Fossil Sunshine’

I met Michael McKimm earlier this year – at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September 2014. His chapbook, Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press, 2013) interested me because much has been said in the last few years about how poetry has embraced science. This is one plank of the argument that also declares poetry has embraced popular culture, or the world and language of IT, the law, or maybe banking. Yes, poetry is keen to annex what it can. And I would happily sign up to the general principle that poetry’s health can feasibly be measured by the range of experience it can encompass. In times of feebleness poems are stuntedly concerned with poetic subjects, poetic diction; in periods of strength, there is a great sense of traction and encompassment, that anything will give itself to the poet.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of one of these latter moments; reading Nathan Hamilton’s 2013 Bloodaxe anthology (note the wide embrace of the title) Dear World & Everyone In It you might get that feeling. And guess what: Michael McKimm appears on page 90 and Fossil Sunshine really is differently-angled to most of the collections you’ll have read recently. These poems are the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, in a project funded by Arts Council England. Drawing on fieldwork with geologists, the poems explore the relationships between geology, the oil industry and climate change, and (Worple’s blurb says) they ask what the evidence held in the geological record can teach us. The blurb goes on: “From ice ages to landslides, oil spills to geo-engineering, Fossil Sunshine captures the language of geology, as well as the energy and drive of exploration and discovery”.

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Given its subject, the book inevitably has an admonitory tone. But one of the problems with poetry’s annexing more and still more was noted by Keats and his response was to loathe anything poetic that has a palpable, didactic design upon us. Indeed, the poetic and didactic are mutually exclusive for him. Poetry is a realm (perhaps unique) where life’s genuine truth and beauty (simply that it is full of shades and ambiguity) can be expressed and relished without any irritable reaching after clarity and fact. What I like so much about McKimm’s poems is that they would also have pleased Keats on this count. They are vigorous, ambiguous and even visionary. In them we see mankind’s power as much as our malign influence, the frailty of nature as much as its resilience. They want us to think about these issues, but will not do the thinking for us.

‘Tertiary Basalts’ describes its igneous subject as “Crow black, slick as onions, or walk-on-nails / tough”. It’s in part a child’s eye view (“A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam”) and the narrator admits that rock like this would give his earlier self “more pictures than the clouds”. But McKimm does not ironise the child’s vision but combines it with an adult understanding of the rock’s creation to make a more rounded celebration of the natural world. ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’ does something similar as it vigorously describes the sea’s biting away at the friable coastal reaches till “a fencepost hang[s] from a whip / of wire, and plastic drainage pipes / [are] like pillarbox guns”. Whatever warnings are here they are buried in the figurative language – the whip, the gun. The poem is a tour de force of minute particulars; I’ve never felt so close to the ebb and flow, the nibbling of erosion, the swirl of “gobstoppers of granite, sandstone, / Norwegian porphyry, carnelian”. Elsewhere (in prose this time), someone called Stuart takes a little hammer to a chunk of Yorkshire chalk and skilfully unearths a fossil sea sponge: “Laosciadia Planus. I weighed it in my hand.” And like a time machine, suddenly Bridlington with its Pitch and Putt course vanishes to be replaced by a vision of the past: “Sea conifers, angiosperms. The whole place electric with reptiles”.

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Only someone much concerned with the environment could bring the natural world – both present and past – so vividly into poetry. Someone like that could not fail to express concern at our interventions in the world. A scattered sequence of poems, each called ‘Abstract from a Conference’, expresses this concern. The first explains that coal, oil, gas are anciently stored sunshine that we have since “sought with our intelligence / and drive”. Our brilliance has long been to our benefit but . . . “Is it possible, a soft // landing for civilisation? We were smart. / How smart do we now want to be?” The ‘Abstract’ in the title to these poems perhaps permits more didacticism than elsewhere: abstract as summary, abstract as form of language. Yet even here there is an awed sense of ourselves: “Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere, / from nothing we grew”. Where did we go wrong? We “thought of ourselves”. Perhaps little else. And for a while, “where was the harm in that? – / as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.” ‘Pipeline’ is another sustained performance, a description of the route of a North American oil pipeline. Detail is put to use to suggest both the varieties of landscape it passes through as well as the ingenuity of its builders: “without even a pit stop it’s pierced Manitoba, / steady trajectory, knows where it’s going”.

So McKimm’s images are often carefully laid down, alive, at the borders of ambiguity. Yet the descriptive drive of the book pulls no punches when it comes to the mess we have made of things. Here are “the basics: deforestation, fallow lands, / tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface // water extraction, mining, transportation systems, / waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception, // groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours, / warfare”. Even a small scale ‘Oil Field’, apparently landscaped into a natural environment, is regarded, or rather listened to, with suspicion: “the beam pump’s / gentle purr, like an antique Singer threaded / through with jet, working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean”. At the living room table, my mother would propel an old Singer like this, an image perhaps of technology taken so far, only to be wrenched further still (the thread through this machine not homely cotton, but the more sinister thread of an oil jet).

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Andrew McCulloch’s review in the TLS concluded: “Read these poems!” Penelope Shuttle has written: “The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile.  These are strong and in every sense grounded poems”. ‘Grounded’ is a worthy pun, of course, as much about McKimm’s language and tone as about his rocky, muddy, sandy subject matter. I’d recommend these poems, for their grit and grain as much as their environmental concerns, for their humble belief in human ingenuity as much as their clear-eyed warning about where it seems to be taking us.