The Rialto, 2012 £5.50
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Marcia Menter and Peter Jarvis
My favourite poem in this pamphlet is its opening one – ‘Kitchen’ – which also seems to me to embody what I enjoyed most about the work generally. ‘Kitchen’ strikes me, above all else, as celebratory. Despite having its context – a teenage, coming-of-age (coming-out?) rooted in a particular time and place – it captures something universal about liberation, and stepping through an invisible door to fearless living:
What would you do if I died right now, here, you asked,
your hand still resting on my thigh. Your eyes focused on the ceiling,
on the splash of curry sauce to the left of the light which doesn’t work.
We could have been in a field.
A wooden spoon dug into my back.
I thought it funny.
Let’s not talk of death where food is prepared, I said.
I like the line about the field – and Campbell’s confidence in including it. At times, however, the amount of detail she packs in is more than I can comfortably absorb, as in ‘Memories of Your Sister in a Full-Body Wetsuit’:
Letters had been found in bags. Cut and stick newspaper notes
like it’s the movies. So we took her away.
She looked out of place against the motor. It was its corners,
and her hair as she pushed the back seats down flat to sit. Like a tank.
I struggle with this. At the same time, overall, I am left with the impression of a writer who seems to allow herself a magnanimous freedom. She uses long lines often, doesn’t cut herself short, or trammel herself even into a stricter free-form. The effect is strangely infectious – almost as though the poems themselves, as do their main protagonists, roam free across their distinctive North Eastern hills.
There is also a dark edge, at times – which I relished – and recurring motifs around fish and bird life, which intrigued. A pair of facing poems (‘Springtime Catch’, and ‘Treading Water’) were among my favourites. They sounded more authoritative to me than some of the more list-like work (‘Birdhouse’, for instance). I sensed strength, and greater focus, as here, in ‘Treading Water’:
Umbilically I was a long line of fishermen and lasses.
A northern starfish. A pink, fleshed bomb waiting for my tail to grow.
I smiled gums for ships I’d one day sink.
The blurbs on the back of this pamphlet speak of wonder and magic, of “an unusual and significant voice”. I’m quoting them to try to get a handle on these poems, which are indeed rich and imaginative but which I had a hard time entering. This is at least partly because I’m so much older than the poet, who is in her twenties looking back on what seems to me a quite recent childhood. I kept thinking, why revisit it now, and at such length?
Then again, it’s an interesting childhood, certainly more interesting than mine. Campbell is a sea creature, and not from a clean-smelling sea. There’s her friend’s little sister, born with her legs fused together (“the kids call her selkie”). There’s the hanged woman rotating in her parlour as neighbours gawp through the windows (“she is a fish now, kick, kick, kicking”). There’s teenage sex, childbirth in a church, a miraculous dead seagull, all evoked as if they were happening now, now, now.
Campbell doesn’t just recount. She reimagines and transforms. In ‘The Patron Saints of Animals’, her parents’ home becomes a kind of cheerful abattoir—I get the impression they were meat lovers and she, perhaps, wasn’t:
Father brings our biggest cow in from the outside cold.
She clatters on the table top, breaking soup bowls under her
[ . . . ]
Mother puts her palms out on the cow’s warm flank, counts upwards
[ . . . ]
We could feed here for a long while, I think, then hang her udders up
on the chandelier. Fill them high with marzipan, and dance below.
Campbell does bring me right inside her head. The writing is luminous, immediate, and (yes) magical. I imagine she fell in love with words early, spinning them into shining nets to save herself from a kind of drowning. She’s a real poet, in other words.
But if I hadn’t been asked to review this pamphlet, I might not have had the persistence to stay with these poems long enough to appreciate them. I need more signposts to help me make sense of these memories of hers. Too often I can’t thread my way through her stream of consciousness, especially in the two prose poems here. ‘Birdbath’ begins:
One of those Sunday afternoons no one knows how to use. Picking rosemary in oversized wellingtons. Green ones. Grease and Singing in the Rain parading out. Mam and dad arguing over lamb about which to glue their daughters to. The carving knife lying by my sister’s bear.
‘Dear Ms. Campbell’, I want to tell her, ‘take pity. The first few drafts are for you, but all the rest are for me.’
To describe The Hungry Ghost Festival as reminiscences of growing up in Tyne and Wear is insufficiently true, in fact nearly misleading – for her home patch is turned almost into a mystical kingdom by a leaping imagination that makes magic out of the ordinary. Campbell gives us poems of wild inventiveness, full of narrative distortions and elliptical jumps, surreal, baffling and enticing.
But take heart. The pamphlet comes with built-in satnav: a full-cover drawing pointing the way to a Tynemouth mermaid, high-drifting Chinese lanterns signifying the East Asian Hungry Ghost Festival, occasion for the return of purgatorial spirits for festive reunions. In ‘Lobster Girl’, Campbell, explorer of margins, claims membership of the sisterhood of “land-walking sea-women. And/ we are not caged. We fly.”
There are investigations of various kinds of marginality here, most obviously in poems set at the seashore – ‘When We Found The Tide’, ‘Like A Fish Out’, ‘Springtime Catch’. Sometimes the supernatural intercedes, as in ‘Ullambana’ and the exuberant ‘The Patron Saints Of Animals’.
And the work has a wide emotional range. ‘Treading Water’, in the persona of that mermaid is surreal and comical:
I was birthed in the Tyne on a fluorescent buoy
kept afloat by its placenta. Both of us ballooned.
For a while the mermaid is quite the star turn: “Those first Sundays people with cameras came. Snapped me screaming on my back.” Locals gawped at her from the top of The Baltic, even tried baptising her. Committing herself neither to Newcastle nor Gateshead, she “hovered in the river mouth, touching neither one side nor the other.”
Like her mermaid, Campbell loves manipulating her audience – and it’s no good if we don’t enjoy the experience. A few poems (‘Gambit’, Polyphemus’, ‘Lily Rose’, for example) are so oblique that the reader may find herself in the position of producing meanings for herself – very postmodern. Experiencing ‘Lily Rose’ is like being in a centrifuge where poem-particles are flying upward and outward, never to rest. Is she a doll, a picture, a suicide? ‘Polyphemus’ has turned this reader one-eyed in attempts to unravel it.
The best in the collection? For me it’s ‘Kitchen’, the first in the pamphlet – a sort of falling-in-love poem with a difference: delicate, sensitive, but bizarre and hugely amusing as well. Jen Campbell has a lot of tricks in her poem-bag and it will be fun to track her future work, to see where she flies.