Red Squirrel Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Hilary Menos, D A Prince and Fiona Moore
Much of Definitions of Distance is about the formative experiences of Jake Campbell's youth. Here he is in 'Stadium of Light, December 1999' standing by his father at a urinal as "their piss-steam rises". Here he is in 'Household Waste Only' bonding with Dad over shed clearance and Talk Sport. And here he is in 'Heredity as Seen Through an Eight Inch Mirror With a Disposable Razorblade', first as a 14-year-old boy hoping to grow enough beard to shave, and then as a man of 22 watching as the faces of his father and grandfather appear in the shaving mirror. There’s a lot of football, dogs, driving.
Of course we write about what we know and what’s important to us. And maybe, as a woman in my forties with three sons in the process of leaving home, I've had my fill of this male coming-of-age stuff. But I think some of the poems in this collection don't do enough work to engage the reader. In 'Oakleigh Gardens', Campbell describes a bonfire night out with his father:
Boys we know from year nine
pull cans from plastic bags;
one of them has his thumb jammed
in a lasses jeans, a sovereign-ringed finger
gleaming on her bum.
Campbell doesn't do anything more than record these as the observations of a moment. I like the last line of the poem, which introduces a clever and imaginative metaphor, but the sexual innuendo of the preceding two is clumsy (“thinking of spent cylinders/ nestling among dewy grass/ as if the sky never had its ripcord pulled.")
Line endings also seem to present a problem. Too much of the poetry reads like chopped up prose, and sometimes quite arbitrarily chopped. Take 'My Granddad Buries King at Souter Lighthouse':
I can see him pulling
up at Souter.
Why break the line before “up”? And I’m equally uneasy in the final stanza:
Back in his car, slipping the gearbox
into third as he growled up Lizard Lane,
the sun opening over the North Sea
like a tangerine, he'll have begun singing:
'Golden brown, texture like sun,
lays me down with my mind; he runs . . . '
Quite apart from debating the wisdom of including Hugh Cornwell lyrics in a poem, perhaps Campbell might consider prose, or prose poetry, as a more appropriate form here. He does in '37 Morpeth Avenue', and it works.
To my mind, the best poems bookend the collection. 'Narwhals', the first, is lyrical, clever and honest. The last, 'At Land's End', is perfect. The poise and control demonstrated in these two poems reassure me that this poet has a lot more to show us.
D A Prince:
These poems are rooted in England’s north-east, around South Shields— “mosquito to England’s neckline” as Campbell helpfully describes it in a phrase from ‘My granddad buries King at Souter Lighthouse’. Places are specified and named: “37 Morpeth Avenue”, “Oakleigh Gardens”, “Hollybank Court”—location is significant. Even in the closing poem, ‘At Land’s End’, Campbell acknowledges the vital role of geography in shaping our lives:
where England is loaded
like the Google Earth globe
ready, whenever we want
for us to zoom,
set down our placemarks.
His life is already shaped by where a familiar dog is buried, the football stadium, the refuse tip, bus routes, family history. He likes the precision of detail at all levels: Escort Estate, Reeboks, the 525 to Cleadon, Calippos, Kronenbourg, Four Four Two (and that list covers only the first four poems). These aren’t brands that exclude—in fact, they have the effect of admitting the reader into each experience. These are the details of real, everyday, ongoing life under the “gold-edged grey of Northumbrian sky.”
I wonder, though, if the details and phrases aren’t more memorable than the poems as a whole. Campbell is clever with phrases—“her spine . . . clear as a row/ on an abacus”, “my throat grinds like a pencil sharpener”, “The pit’s atrophy/ saw the chink in the town sealed like a wound.” These are just a few of the images I marked as worth returning to.
But a poem is more than accumulated phrases, and Campbell is still finding his way to transform separate details into a larger, coherent whole. The title poem, ‘On trying to find definitions of distance’ is a good example: it’s a title that promises much and, pared down, it makes a distinctive title for the collection. The poem opens with large images for the distance between two lovers—“a swimming pool// where we// float through each other’s ripples” and “we hurtle the firmament/ like Red Arrows.” The figures that itemise his distance, however, don’t live up to the promise: “209 miles/ 3 changes/ 1 Metro/ £56.90”, culminating in a text message. There’s a good idea hiding in here, and one that’s worth exploring further, but this version still reads as though it’s in draft.
This is Campbell’s first collection, and in 2011 New Writing North recognised his potential in awarding him the Andrew Waterhouse Award. That he is published by a local press (Red Squirrel are based in Morpeth, Northumberland) is a sign of the commitment that poets with a strong local voice can attract.
This pamphlet is well put together, though not in too obvious a way; I enjoyed the process of realisation. The title poem is placed in the middle, and addresses the strangeness of being apart from someone loved—in different ways, including metaphor (“this space/ between us/ is a swimming pool”) and a reckoning of the distance (“209 miles/ 3 changes/ 1 Metro/ £56.90”). The final poem, ‘At Land’s End’, addresses the disjunction between being there in real life and the landmark’s virtual existence, on Google Earth etc. The first poem, ‘Narwhals’, is about moving from one element to another:
I see your courage and I want it:
the way you hold your candlestick
faces to the ceiling
of the surface
Past and present come up against each other too, in poems about three generations of men and an occasional dog. This provides a strand of tender nostalgia to run through meditations with a strong sense of place (north-east England), full of humour and circumstantial detail, and based on everyday life—going to the dump, watching someone pass by on a station escalator, supporting Sunderland. ‘Stadium of Light, December 1999’, one of my favourites, is set in the gents:
his Dad’s streak—
as turned off fibre
and gurgles over
jewels of the urinal.
The gift for fleeting description shown above is a characteristic of Campbell’s writing. Elsewhere, bed sheets are “like a skin of milk”; cranes in a derelict shipyard are “set/ like taxidermy giraffes”. Such delicate images are most effective when given space; a poem describing a dead fish overwhelms with detail, making it hard to see.
The poet’s language is knotted up with consonants, as if he uses relatively few Latinate words—this works well. His syntax isn’t always as assured and he has a tendency to start sentences with a participle, which is hard to do successfully. The subject of the sentence, furthermore, doesn’t always match the participle. This could have been sorted out during editing, and needs to be if the poems appear in a full collection.
I hope they will, and that if they do, one of them is ‘Heredity as Seen Through an Eight Inch Mirror with a Disposable Razorblade’, which achieves the considerable feat of living up to its title.