Templar Poetry, 2008, £4.00
Reviewed by Lizzy Dening, Stephen Payne and Kirsten Irving
Here are the opening lines of ‘Quickthorn’:
Don’t bring haw into the house at night
or in any month with a red fruit in season
or when starlings bank against the light,
don’t bring haw in.
From here onwards, Campbell sets the scene for a collection drawn from fairy tale and myth, blended with sex appeal and sensory detail. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I’d stake a lot on her being an Angela Carter fan: her poems are a hotch-potch of circus elephants, princesses and tattooed men, not to mention strong mother figures.
Particularly reminiscent of Carter is the circus-themed ‘Will of the People’, which crackles with energy while exploring the vulnerability of women, using the metaphor of a tight-rope walker. The ‘will’ of the title relates to the revolt of the audience as they turn against the establishment:
Elephant keeper, how could you let it happen?
How could you take us to the brink of ourselves,
knowing that we make her fly through our sparked clapping,
how we swig our emotional track when she runs the wire?
Another theme running throughout the collection is wildflowers, which adds to the sense that the work is suffused with folklore. As a wildlife enthusiast, I’m a sucker for the use of flower (or animal) names in poetry, and consequently loved ‘Giving the Talk’, which takes the romance out of flowers by exploring the morbid nature of the British countryside:
I know every stick and stone of this old road
every hollyhock and foxglove
where the flesh fly lays her eggs in devil spit
and finishes with the brutal nature of humanity, at a car crash hotspot:
No-one puts flowers
or one of those little crosses. Slowing down
on that bend, as everyone here knows,
To me, that ending is particularly successful: “everyone here knows” evokes the malevolent nature of small communities, where people are too proud to leave flowers, or warnings, for victims. This dark undercurrent builds up to the last piece, the title poem, about a water trough in which various animals have drowned, including “sow’s disgrace squealing through the night” and birds “trapped in slow-flapped deaths”. Campbell’s final image is of a stuffed cat:
in its drowned
death no longer Tabby, but something more dead,
more of a shock to find in the wide morning
of visitor delight than any reminder
that we know nothing yet.
The whole collection modernises myth, rhapsodises about death, and is as sharp and shocking as Red Riding Hood graffitied onto the wall of an abattoir.
When reading Siobhan Campbell’s poetry, you need your wits about you. You might want to have a dictionary about you too.
These poems are shot through with strangeness, and a very distinctive tone. The various puffs on the cover of this beautifully-made pamphlet attribute this distinctiveness variously to musicality, honesty and a mix of delicacy and harshness as well as a “sense of disturbance”. This last point seems to me the most germane; but I find myself wanting to comment on vocabulary.
The dictionary was necessary for me in two ways. First, to look up the words that were unfamiliar. Sometimes this turned out to be a matter of Irish vernacular, and I personally quite enjoyed the discoveries. I also think the vernacular words add something to the poems, helping to place them in a landscape; enriching their presentation as folk-stories, the way they seem to speak for a local community’s superstitions and fears.
Second, I needed the dictionary to look up words I already knew, to see if there was some additional sense I was unaware of, which might explain a usage that had stopped me short. But here the dictionary didn’t help. A number of the poems use one word in what seems to me a very surprising way, so that this became almost the defining characteristic of my reading experience (reminding me a little of the American poet William Matthews). Examples include: “the fairies and their jilting”; a circus elephant referred to as “this lumbering creaser”; tomato juice described as “rapid with salt”; and mashed potatoes celebrated because they “charged despair from a teenager”.
If this technique works, perhaps it works by stretching the meaning of the word and the phrase that uses it. It also ensures that the writing is never ordinary. But it seems to me that it’s a high-risk strategy in that it relies on the edges of a word’s semantics, and that these may be idiosyncratic, not shared between writer and reader.
I suppose, in the end, it’s a matter of a reader’s taste; personally I admire the invention, but feel it keeps me at arm’s length from the poem’s emotional centre and makes me a little too aware of the poet’s efforts to be poetic.
However, it would be misleading to finish on such a negative note. Siobhan Campbell is an imaginative writer, and her poems are never boring. How often can one say that? Here is the start of ‘First Time Up’, which almost seems to anticipate this review, as well, I hope, as illustrating its concerns:
How could we catch their weird? They seem to speak so fast.
We flip the ashtrays in a borrowed car, the driver worries
where to park and we’re becoming cousinly through lives
slid from under a remark. What would they expect?
Robert Crawford, on the cover notes to That Water Speaks in Tongues, mentions Campbell’s “outstanding ear for the music of language” and indeed, the descriptive segments in this collection are rich with assonance, largely without going overboard. There are some cracking turns of phrase, like the farmer in ‘Blind Eye’, “who sees his wheat ripen like gangrene”. There are a couple of occasions, however, when the pursuit of music feels forced. For example, the final line of ‘Platform’ (“… parched that carped the distance just as I embarked.”) while the requirement for internal rhyming gives us the confusing phrase “the fairies and their jilting” in the otherwise great opener ‘Quickthorn’.
I’m far more interested in the folk tale tropes and gothic undertones that Campbell employs and adapts. The paranoia over seeing your double in ‘When I asked my Dad about Warrenpoint’, the threat of the fairy ring in ‘Blind Eye’ and the agricultural injuries in ‘These Women’ are genuinely chilling; death is the backseat-driver in many of these pieces.
There are a couple of editorial niggles, such as the mention of “haggart” in two consecutive poems and the bland titling of some of the poems (‘Sinister’ being my least favourite—its obviousness deflates what is otherwise understated) but it’s an intriguing and dark selection of poems that you can read and re-read, finding something new each time.
To take a brief look at the design of the pamphlet, the cover is reminiscent of a painting-by-numbers picture, showing a grey and green fragmented landscape. My first thought was of a weir but it could be rock. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it. There’s a great deal of grey and I can see how this represents the foreboding tone of many of the poems, but I don’t know how attractive it would be to a buyer.
It would be a shame if that did put people off, though. A lot worth exploring behind that ominous cover.