What critics said about Heat Signature:
Review by Peter Dolmányos: Eger Journal of English Studies XVII (2017)
Heat Signature (Seren, 2017) is the fourth volume of poetry by Siobhán Campbell, it follows the previous collection Cross-Talk, and the earlier The Permanent Wave and The Cold that Burns both in terms of chronology and poetic practice. Her achievements are marked by several awards, the most recent of which is the 2016 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize. In addition, she is a distinguished academic affiliated to The Open University, whose critical work is also significant. The collection is divided into two numbered sections, but neither titles nor epigraphs are provided this time that would outline a tentative direction for the reader. The first poem, however, may provide clues as to both the tactics involved and the thematic intricacies of the collection. “The shame of our island” introduces a seemingly trivial fact, the killing of the wolf, but it quickly establishes a paradox since not only the last wolf was wiped out “but the two before that” (9) as well. The title of the poem is typographically separated from the first stanza yet the syntactic line is continuous, and the poem moves on to an anecdote on the imagined reconstruction of the killing of “the third-last wolf” (ibid), focusing on the aftermath of the event, that of the opening of the carcass and the subsequent questions that emerge. Yet the ultimate human curiosity is raised and demonstrated only after destruction has been done, the questions are preceded by action, which may render them no longer relevant, and the question closing the poem, “Is this wolfish?” carries an intended ambiguity as to the proper focus of the sentence: it is not decided whether the question concerns the no longer harmful body or the agent responsible for its current state. This tendency for riddling and paradox is carried through the whole collection and the result is a challenging and complex body of poetry that never settles for neat and easy conclusions. Everyday, almost casual moments are suddenly upset by unexpected turns and unusual perspectives, seemingly comfortable pastoral settings shed their illusory surface to reveal menacing depths, and locations and histories are ultimately released from their usual contexts. The fractures and faultlines haunting the poems of the collection are a result of the present context as well as that of Siobhán Campbell’s Irish inheritance, unsettled and unsettling at once, thus the collection retains an air of complexity and difficulty that continuously encourages return and rereading with the promise of new directions. 84 Péter Dolmányos Indeed, the poems abound in contrasts and ambiguity, opening possibilities for different directions of interpretation. In “Lace” a careful and subtle difference is made between “lace” and “lacy” (20), in the poem “In their high cheek bones run the veins of a nation” the conclusion is a tense either/or type, in “Piebald” the intricate interplay of the lines “That was a world we lost before it named us” and “That was a world lost before we named it” (17) creates a haunting sense of being lost without direction. These ambiguities and divergent patterns are extended into pairs or possible pairings of poems in the collection with perspectives that answer each other: “Convexed” with “The Water level”, “Climb” with “Clew Bay from the Reek”, “Flora” and “About cows”, and there is a possible association between ‘The shame of our island” and “Weeding” too on the basis of the unwanted, with the conclusion of the latter poem perhaps redeeming something of the uneasiness of the former one. Though several poems of the volume focus on elements of nature, there is a palpable refusal to romanticise the natural world. Drumlins, water or animals retain their physicality and their otherness as they reject humanisation, and whatever mythic association they may evoke, it is quickly deconstructed through the speaker’s epistemological honesty and subsequent rejection of common fallacies. The only exception is “Fodder” in which the cornfield appears to possess what may be termed an identity of its own, yet it is the title that works against the body of the poem by its highly pragmatic and practical expression. One certain point of reference of the collection is the Irish context, which provides regular clear-cut and well-defined points of departure (or arrival). Beyond her self-confessed debt to the poetry of Padraic Fiacc and Eavan Boland (cf. Campbell, “From there to here”, 123-127), echoes of other Irish poets, mainly northern ones are possible to detect – Heaney (the readiest one is with “Bog Swimming” through the image of the hole that might be endless), Montague (the landscape in “Drumlins have no personality” or the motif of circling in “Piebald”, recalling the perspective of The Rough Field), Longley (the opening of “Periwinkles”) or Ciarán Carson (“Camouflage” has affinities with the Belfast sonnets) are tentatively evoked in the poems yet there is an uneasiness of accepting these earlier perspectives. What follows is rather a personal view focusing on individual experience rather than the communal; as a result, places retain their simple physicality and remain repositories of private significance. A remarkable dimension of the poems is the music. The language is rich, there are delightful intricacies of rhymes and assonances occasionally giving the impression of casual patterns rather than a fully methodical design, yet this fits well with the tactics of challenging the reader to keep up attention instead of providing easy and lulling rhythms. Heat Signature by Siobhán Campbell 85 The formal diversity of the poems is also worth noting. Apart from the usual short-line lyrics there are several long-line poems, nearly prose ones, yet unlike Carson’s meandering and digressive stories these follow stricter itineraries. Neatly organised stanzaic forms stand in contrast with looser compositions, which reflects the overall thematic organisation of the volume too. Titles are occasionally closely tied to the opening stanzas, forming units that are only temporarily separated by typography. The poem “The Latest” is composed of carefully interwoven repetitions of the same lines, creating a seemingly playful but at once somewhat unnerving atmosphere. In “Drumlins have no personality” the form reflects the idea that “They will not be domestic” (30) as the stanza divisions do not conform to a regular pattern. All these formal solutions mean an integral part of the effect of the poems, both individually and as parts of a collection. The closing piece of the volume, entitled “Gatherer” is a return to a more pleasant tradition – but only on the surface. The pastoral setting offers a soothing conclusion to the collection as a whole yet the closing question retains the ambiguity that is present in the first poem as it can be a question of willingness as well as of agency, or merely the simple indication of curiosity involved in the Future Simple of the sentence. The subtleness of the sound patterning of this last poem is also remarkable: an observable rhyme pattern is established by the end of the poem (a nice pair of alternating rhymes), in harmony with the title that implies some form of ordering principle at work, yet the ambiguity inherent in the question, in the general form as well as in the actual one, maintains the tension that is a characteristic of the whole volume and which prompts and encourages returns to the poems for reassessment. 86 Péter Dolmányos Siobhán Campbell Piebald Horses of the others, the thinkers, the travellers, tethered on the edge of new dual carriageways, tied in the blank side of advance factories. They verge on the flanks of dealers and shakers where plans end in a thicket of rubble and stumps. What are they for? A yelled canter down the scruff-sides of dusty villages, barebacked warmth sidling and a hearts-beating thud between your knees – where mis-remembrance is a dream to nourish, where promise can out-run irony. Not the hero horses, beauties black and brave, who took the warrior to battle and will not return, these are compromised, misled and confused, heads too big for their ribcage, scrawny as the screed of grass they pull. Yet they must have been there from the start – round the back of wired-off ruminations. We pretended not to notice the occasions when they recalled a field, the hock-stripping speed of a gallop down a long hedge where a quiver of legends misted into song. But when they started to gather in places built to house a desperation, they seemed to trick our vision of a freedom. That was a world we lost before it named us – none of the promise, the clang of potential, instead the fetters that hold us to self-interest the binds that make taxes out of failure. That was a world lost before we named it, part of a larger undertaking to help us understand captivity. Go back, go back they seem to say but we have no direction, rounding again the ring road to the city as if we know the story behind the story. Heat Signature by Siobhán Campbell 87 Drumlins have no personality they bland the land, make one space much like another. The road imposed by tar could ribbon off at any moment – pop open a corpuscle, a sup-hole of slippage. In the dips between shale hills is water or its suggestion. The glands of a fish were found here petrified in a granite slate. If you could find where it ends, this is egg-in-a-basket topography, undulations for a giant game of hide and seek, threnody for straw boys and those who chase the wren. In the few straggling bushes, polished pockets of stasis. What would it be to sink here if these hills reversed, plug holes to a swipe of earth? They cannot be farmed. They will not be domestic. They ask for nothing but leave us a little frantic, a touch of babble at the edges of our springs. Permission received from the author and from Seren Books, to reprint two poems from Heat Signature (2017) by Siobhan Campbell. References Campbell, Siobhán. Heat Signature. Bridgend: Seren Books, 2017 Campbell, Siobhán. “From there to here”: writing out of a time of violence. A creative and critical thesis. PhD thesis. Lancaster University, 2015
Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud
Thursday, October 12, 2017
Prize-winning poet and critic Siobhán Campbell is an important voice in Irish poetry. Educated at University College, Dublin and at Lancaster University followed by postgraduate study at NYU and the New School, New York, she was associate professor in English literature and creative writing at Kingston University in London and now works for the Open University. Heat Signature is her sixth volume of poetry.
Heat Signature, which takes its title from thermal imaging technology, is fired with an infrared energy all of its own as Campbell writes of her absorbing interest in her homeland. In many ways the book is in keeping with her research interests, which focus on the place of the political poem in contemporary poetics. Taking her cue from Padraic Fiacc and Eavan Boland – two poets with whom she considers that she has a strong affinity – she writes poetry that seeks to engage with contemporary society through the guise of pastoral poetics, historical narrative and Irish mythology. Her poems pack a powerful punch, and are intelligent, complex and thought-provoking. ‘Warrenpoint’ and ‘The Origin of the Mimeo’ – a loaded reflection on the power of guns - are counterbalanced by ‘Concentration’ and ‘Chink’ that are written in a lighter tone and exhibit a wry sense of humour. She has a keen perception for language and knows how to use it for maximum effect.
The pastoral poems, such as ‘Weeding’, ‘Piebald’, ‘Fodder’, ‘Flora’, ‘About cows’ and ‘The longing of the bees’ are clever constructs which enable Campbell to address serious issues. For Campbell, the natural world is full of portents and musings. There is great energy in these poems, a feeling that some kind of conflict might break out at any moment. ‘Weeding’ explores and challenges the moral obligations of the world of work. ‘Piebald’ takes as its starting point the incongruity of the horse’s patchy colour and, because the horses referred to are often used by travellers, extends to an exploration of those who live on the edge of the urban sprawl. In ‘Fodder’ Campbell addresses the cornfield and the battles that were fought on its soil. The consequences of upsetting the proverbial applecart are neatly registered in ‘Flora’.
The poem begins calmly enough:
The cow is on top of her game,
her haunches fat, her bones rounded.
However, in the last stanza, we are told:
But if she kicks the bucket at full froth,
tips it from the milker’s red-raw hand –
then she begins a hell which gathers heat
all through the livelong days without that milk.
This notion that anything could happen at any moment is a tension that is stitched with equal force in her poems about bees where we are told to gather together, to be ready and to brace ourselves for any kind of commotion.
‘Ravens’ is Campbell’s nod to Yeats. His ravens of unresting thought are influential in setting the tone of this volume. Tone is a word that Campbell is concerned about. Her attempt to discover the right tone is written about at length in a poem of the same name which occurs near the beginning of the collection. In this poem, she arrives at a definition of her own special brand of powerful writing:
Tone says here is the other cheek, why don’t you have a go at that?
Tone is when you’re giggling at a double bluff and you see someone crying.
Tone is an artist dropping a Ming vase and calling that art.
There is huge variety to be found here, not just in style but also in subject matter. It is a volume that is full of surprises and it is also one that is profoundly challenging and entertaining. The cover artwork by Frieda Hughes, entitled ‘Flaming Flowers’, gives off an energy all of its own and is a perfect match to this collection. Highly recommended.
Review by Joey Connolly, PN Review
Monday, October 2, 2017
The work here is unflashy but restless; it refuses ever to shout its arguments, but neither will it fall entirely quiet. Most of the poems take Ireland and Irish politics or people as their subjects, but none are didactic, or hopeless, or aggressively decisive.
Campbell’s book is a book of bare facts coaxed into a strange expressiveness by barely-perceptible atmospheres of loss, anger, danger or hope. Or any two or three of these at once. Take the poem ‘In their high cheek bones runs the veins of a nation’, which has a first stanza ending ‘Even though their backs are bent with longing, / they may appear taller than they are.’ In the next, a girl learns to be ambidextrous after a cruel teacher ties a hand behind her back. Later on, the poem warns against a ‘creeping nostalgia’ in the stories of those sent West during ‘the Famine’ and there ‘caressed the oppressor’s tongue’. These ambiguities of pride and suffering – of blame and self-acceptance – are played out in the poem’s final two lines: ‘An island passport might land you a tax haven. / Then again it could cost you an arm and a leg.’, the grim literalism of the which is a good example of the mordant humour with which Campbell resists the idea of the Irish as subjects of English anthropological study.
Heat Signature is not entirely a book of quiet understatement, though. Take ‘Tone’, a lively roll-call of colourful metaphors for tone in its various forms, but also an Ars Poetica for Campbell. The following lines, as well as reproducing a favourite trick of hers – she’s constantly forcing the physical to act as abstraction, and the abstract as concrete – also speaks to the way she’s working to develop a poetics (and a tone) capable of talking about something as various and fractured as the Irish nation:
Nothing trumps tone but when there’s a crack in it, watch
what slips in.
It might be an anti-tone – undoing bravura, dulling the
gloss, leaving tone spent,
in a fierce bad mood, exposed in the light of all that we
once thought we shared.
Campbell’s book has much to say – or, less than say: to evoke, to imply, to examine – about an Ireland enduringly shaped by an old conversation, including the conversation of poetry, about Ireland.
This review is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.
Review by John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Saturday, July 29, 2017
... Siobhán Campbell, too, in Heat Signature (Seren, £9.99) laments a gapped, discontinuous tradition. The Shame of our Island is, she writes, “that we killed the wolf. / Not just the last / but the two before that.” But the poem’s shame and anger lead her to ask, “Is this a wolf with its bared teeth / and its lairy smell / and its fetlock tipped with white? / Is this wolfish?”
In packed, jangling lines, Campbell admits discomfiting (“lairy”) words and images, which predict apocalyptic natural catastrophes: bees are “A brouhaha / if ever you saw one. Tumult of absence, uproar of lack” . . . “Castrati singing in our ears while we sweltered”.
And the poems, like Feeney’s, are situated in a public, national context, which offers an almost formal structure for their experiences: “In this genre beware of a creeping nostalgia. / Nothing grows resentment better than an acre of stones. / An island passport might land you a tax haven. / Then again it could cost you an arm and a leg.” (In their high cheekbones run the veins of a nation).
Review by Wendy French, London Grip
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
The first thing that struck me while glancing though this book was the extraordinary range of interesting titles. Titles are important and Campbell recognises this fact by her choices which lead the reader into this fine collection.
‘The shame of our island’ is the first. The title leads straight into the first line: “is that we killed the wolf.” This is an interesting poem and a story where I could imagine children sitting round a fire to listen to the wild tale. There are three questions in the poem for which there are no answers. But questions still need to be asked even if one cannot find a solution. The last line plays on words: “Is this wolfish?” Is it wolfish to imagine the wolf like this or is it wolfish to be asking these questions? The reader has to make up his/her own mind. And we leave this page to turn to ‘Tone’, a completely different subject matter and prose poem exploring just that, tone.
Tone is an artist dropping a Ming vase and calling that art… Tone is a weasel, drawing the birds down with a special sensuous dance and then, tone is lunch.
I could imagine Campbell having great fun thinking of the different examples. But the poems set me thinking beyond the page and wondering about tone and what it actually is.
This is an intelligent collection whose poems are imbued with subtle emotion. The language is innovative and exciting. The poems are surprising in content and often have to be read twice to grasp the full implication of the meaning of the words.
Campbell celebrates Ireland, her homeland and entices the reader to follow her in her journeys.
No way to pace yourself or plan a rest. Each ridge peak declares itself a fake… All this we see and separate out from the group to feel how things are shifting from this height, how we’re lifted out of ourselves until one, young and without fear, begins to whoop, a clear, felt sound, a rare high tremor…
This language is as fresh and exhilarating as the child’s “whoop”. The reader can hear the child. Many of the poems rely on the sounds and sensuousness of certain words and these words carry the poems with a rhythm and zest.
These poems are deeply felt and that passion carries from the page to the reader. I want to be walking in the following cornfield. I want to feel the sensation of the battles that were fought there. I want to watch the soldiers eat the corn.
What you have seen cornfield could make you weep. The stories they tell you from the north would be worthless to yours… Cornfield, when the breeze flies through you, makes a set dance of your bright tips or when a path opens up to your centre as if a mysterious finger parts your waves [‘Fodder’]
‘Uncle Paddy and the man from Atlantis’ is a prose poem/story that I have read several times for it is delightfully told. It is set on the seafront and Uncle Paddy does just that, meets a men from Atlantis. They share Polos. Read the story for the ending and the journey down the page. Campbell is a story teller of the first degree. If I have a favourite poem this is it. I want to know more about Uncle Paddy and that must mark a good poem.
There is such variety of content in this book and you are constantly surprised by what you may read next. Life goes on in different ways and the ways merge through history and an island’s people and their stories.
The cow is on top of her game, has haunches fat, her bones rounded. She feels the goddess power of her udder in the mould-damp dark of the milking parlour.
‘Flora’ is another sensuous earthy poem where we can smell the parlour and feel the vibrations of the cow in her movements.
Poem titles go from ‘Periwinkles’ to ‘The same people living in the same place’ and each title gives an indirect hint to where the poem may lead – but often with a surprising outcome. The book celebrates all that it is to be Irish and I thank Campbell for allowing me into her world, her country, her vision.
Review by Kevin Higgins, Galway Advertiser
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Poetry from Warrenpoint to the Kalahari Desert
Though there is much that separates them as poets, Siobhan Campbell and Galway-based Aoife Reilly share an unsentimental earthiness about the human body which few of their male counterparts manage to put into words.
Though she has lived for many years in Britain, Ireland remains Campbell’s primary subject. ‘The Blessing’ is like an RS Thomas poem that has been rewritten by Pat McCabe or David Lynch. The narrator and friends meet a freshly ordained priest on the bend of a country road. He offers “to give us his first blessing,/just ordained that hour with no-one to celebrate.” This newly made cleric meets his end when “Just at the Amen, the Ford transit van hurtled/round the corner…”
Another striking feature of Campbell’s poetry is that she is one of our most quotable post-Heaney poets. ‘Ravens’ opens with the killer couplet: “Ravens in their ruaile buailie hear the tick of season-turning trees/they colonise like something moral to be despised.” And in her fine rewrite of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘War has been given a bad name’ she shows that she can do satire too: “But they do say we should attend the Let go/and Forget sessions, coupons free with national newspapers.”
The fact Campbell chooses Brecht as a model marks her out, for he was probably the greatest poet of the 20th century, though the decaying Clintonoid post-liberals who dominate literary discourse will not tell you that, as they cannot forgive him his anti-capitalism.
Review by Dai George
Monday, March 20, 2017
Taken from Dai George’s introductory speech at the launch of Siobhán Campbell’s Heat Signature.
The qualities I most admire and seek to emulate in Siobhán’s work have to do with the question of how we handle the weight of history in poetry – the social history of a particular community, but also that swirling brew of anecdote and myth that makes up an individual’s or a family’s history.
These are not new topics for post-Heaney poetry, but nor are they topics I can easily see my way around – the trick is to find the new and probing angle on them, and I think that Siobhán does this brilliantly. There’s a poem early on in Heat Signature that explicitly announces how Siobhán’s project both emerges from Heaney’s seminal Irish brand of inheritance poetry, and how it resists that idiom, like the work of Carson, Muldoon and McGuckian before her. The title of ‘Weeding’ of course recalls Heaney’s none-more-famous ‘Digging’, but in place of that great, over-anthologised call to verse, Siobhán gives us an altogether more modern, and less stable, celebration of ‘seeing things anew, filthy / with possibility’.
There seems to me to be an instructive switch between the durable and solid potato (or poetry) crop of ‘Digging’, and the essentially purifying, negative harvest of ‘Weeding’: it’s about getting rid of the calcified and complacent tropes that we too readily rely upon and build into monuments. Heat Signature, among many other things, is a collection for busting myths, though its method is always exploratory, ambivalent, imagistic, never tubthumping or didactic. In ‘Piebald’, horses turn into an objective correlative for an older, mythical nation, ‘where mis-remembrance is a dream to nourish, / where promise can out-run irony’, and ‘a quiver of legends misted into song’.
In her work Siobhán always urges the opposite of these values. She asks us to remember properly, but also to move beyond remembrance, to imagine alternatives and futures. The promise that we glimpse in her poetry goes hand in hand with the quickness of her irony. ‘Concentration’, which opens the second section of Heat Signature, spells out the great dividend of this rigorous, attentive, less-deceived approach. It’s a poem that’s ostensibly about – not to put too fine a point on it – the speaker’s grandaunt squatting over a potty and peeing late at night. But what could be a hollow, mean-spirited poem, revelling self-indulgently in the ugliness of life, turns out to be anything but. The last stanza passionately articulates the moral purpose behind Siobhán’s work:
When things attract our deep attention
they give back out the stare that we put in.
We know this is commitment of relation.
And though it seems innocent to say,
it is a form of love.
That’s what this marvellous new collection asks us to do, time and again: to pledge our ‘deep attention’, to make a ‘commitment of relation’ between the difficult and the beautiful in our lives, and to find there ‘a form of love’.
What critics said about Cross-Talk and about That Water Speaks in Tongues - which won the Templar Poetry Award:
‘Lyrical and syntactically thrilling, Campbell’s poems conjure and analyse the interwoven nature of family, local and historical conflicts. This is an outward-looking poetry, where the emotion is deeply shared and political. Campbell is clear-eyed about the harshness of nature, but also gives us a sense of its delicacy. She illuminates how we breathe life into it through naming, yet can destroy it with that same breath.’ -Artemis Poetry
‘Her writing has a strong sense of music and a deft unerring balance. But this is by no means poetry about poetry: Campbell’s mordant wit and the sometimes savage honesty of her language coruscate off the page’ -Poetry Book Society Bulletin
‘Cross-Talk is coherent and sophisticated both in its writing and in its thinking; The writing is deceptively fluent and lyrical; most of these poems will need several readings to take in their full import, their narratives are often suppressed. But they are worth re-reading for the pleasure of the language alone.’ -Jane Routh, Magma
‘Many lives, and countries, have a faultline in time, after which nothing remains as before. Campbell unsparingly explores ‘all’ that has come before… in intense stories with a special, terrible eloquence. Campbell’s dark lines gleam with pleasure… (a) fine and ferocious book.’ -Alison Brackenbury, PN Review
‘Siobhan Campbell leads us up a garden path, and then swerves into a completely different garden!’ - Jackie Kay, Templar poetry prize
Siobhan Campbell emerged as an important voice in Irish poetry. Campbell's poems emphasize the …delicate politics of crossing borders, they observe the tension between natural and manufactured worlds, and between the mundane and profane. In poems that are wry, sobering, and lovely, Siobhan Campbell examines the nuances of place and space, how they are altered over time and through narrative, and how we must adapt. - Kelli Maloy, ILS
Avoiding the lure of the idyll… Siobhán Campbell brings the characteristically soft diction of the Irish lyric tradition to her third full collection, Cross-Talk …a cunning sideways take on the masculine pastoral… As (she) says, “It takes a softened tongue to fill a twisted mouth”.- Fiona Sampson The Irish Times
‘an outstanding ear for the music of language… the rhymes and half-rhymes give the verse a rewarding sureness and slyness. Siobhan Campbell’s sense of cadenced disturbance marks her out as someone worth listening to with attention’- Robert Crawford
‘Poems that are fierce, luminous and clear-eyed; torpedoes lined with feather strokes’ - Bernard O’Donoghue
She has a keen eye and a brutal honesty of language, her verses are constantly twisting, surprising and hitting you like an unexpected slap in the face… immensely enjoyable reading.’ - Belfast Telegraph
There's a full text of some of these reviews below...
Review is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2
BEFORE AND AFTER - SIOBHAN CAMPBELL, CROSS-TALK (SEREN) £7.99
Many lives – and countries – have a faultline in time, after which nothing remains as before. Siobhán Campbell’s opening poem, ‘When all this is over’, holds an almost animal sense of peace, with dancing
rhythm, stanzas brief as breath:
I will cross the border
over and back
I will lie in my form
in overgrown fields.
But relief is short. For good reason, this is a hard book to read, as Campbell unsparingly explores the blood and pain of ‘all’ that has come before: Ireland’s rawly fresh history.
Its violence is trapped in intense stories, as of the RUC man who ‘shot the pike, one by one, each in its writhing head’. (Campbell’s final lines are unsparingly strong.) There is special, terrible eloquence in poems
which tackle destruction indirectly, as in the description of a man slashing at foxgloves, where lyricism wars
with its broken subjects:
Without their beauty pinks and reds […]
while petals were scattered and smattered there
where the ashen stick laid everything bare.
The country of Campbell’s poems is darkened by domestic brutality, accidents – ‘scattering the limbs of the two Brady children’ – and a poverty which sends out children stealing straw for ‘bonamhs’ (piglets). Yet Campbell keeps a sharp sense of speech (‘We’ll not put money on it, mind’), and of the toughness of women (‘Ironing keeps it at bay’).
Finally this fine and ferocious book admits glimpses of life beyond violence, in the rhythm of hay-making: ‘lean and flip,/ flip and lean,’ where, mercifully,
‘A frog jumps, still whole’.
Campbell’s dark lines gleam with pleasure:
‘We hope for sun’.
Poetic tensions, north and south: Cross-Talk
ILS Kelli Maloy
CROSS-TALK: SEREN, 2009, 7.99 [pounds sterling]
Through her previous full length collections The Permanent Wave and The cold that burns, Dublin-born and London-based poet Siobhan Campbell emerged as an important voice in Irish poetry, and since the publication of the latter in 2000 she has published chapbooks That Water Speaks in Tongues and Darwin among the machines. Her latest full-length collection, Cross-Talk, is a welcome arrival.
Cross-Talk both draws inspiration from and expounds upon its Louis MacNeice epigraph: "all poems.., in varying degrees contain an internal conflict, cross-talk, back-wash, come-back or pay-off." Campbell's poems emphasize the tension between the North and the Republic, and the delicate politics of crossing borders. Simultaneously, though, they observe the tension between natural and manufactured worlds, and between the mundane and profane, as in "The last long drag," with its conflation of the speaker's father, who takes a "a few / last porch-dark pulls" on his Sweet Alton before attending church services, and the tar-streaked woman tied to a lamppost who was given a Sweet Afton by her punishers.
Several of the poems detail border crossings during family trips, observed from the backseat perspective of the speaker. In "First Time Up," the speaker distinguishes between the "we" who "flip the ashtrays in a borrowed car" and brought "blue-bruised roses.., by the root" and the "they" whose speech is fast and who "might be out on nights we're in our beds, setting snares / in the whin that we call furze." The distance between the "we" and unnamed "they" is intensified by the sharp contrast between the hum of bees and "the line of sparrows / stuffed to look alive," all framed by the poem's opening question: "How could we catch their weird?"
In "Almost in sight," the North is characterized by otherness both sociopolitical and geological. As the "southern car" moves along "the road that's blasted through the drumlin," the landscape changes--the air is a few degrees cooler, the bees that have arrived early in the south are absent here--and the "weird" is everywhere evident: in the bread, the teenagers' modern haircuts, the "pounds, clean and strange and crisp." The disconnect between modern advances--"roads so good it could be Mars"--and static seasonal progression is captured in the image of nature's failure to mask the imposed landscape of the Troubles: "Trees slow to leaf have not quite hid / the sign, 'sniper at work'." The poem works elegantly on this descriptive level, which is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the physical journey with a more transgressive imagined crossing:
But look, we missed the cross; meant for the lark
to ask the guard,
how many feet, how many inches from the posts,
if there’s a line that lets you know your place,
and if they ever feel like slipping out and jumping
through at night, to say I was in Ireland once.
The violence of the North is more starkly illustrated in "The ripening of an RUC man," which chronicles a series of failed avocations--guitar, cycling, pot-bellied pigs--to its arresting conclusion, in which the title figure rows to the middle of a lake, "took the rifle,/heavy shouldered, loaded up, leaned full-sighted/and shot the pike, one by one, each in its writhing head." Through each of the attempted hobbies, the man tries to find a natural connection--wanting, for example, to produce on the Spanish guitar "a chord that smelled of ripening oranges." The "ripening" of the title, however, the process of a man's "coming back to himself," is thwarted by nature, and his attempts to cycle through the mountains fail because "those gears must not be right for hills." The natural and political collide more strikingly when the man attempts to nurture the pigs and "handles the moss they eat as if it is pieces of scorched / flesh gathered from roofs," and the brutality of the poem's final image is inevitable, no surprise to those who know him. This inevitability is later echoed in the collection's title poem, which, further reverberating with the MacNeice line, asserts, "And as for payoff, check-out, flip side, watch your back, / it's a cultural condition with no known cure." Just as the poems are is shaped by the internal conflict and "cross-talk" referenced by MacNeice, they are guided by the collection's other epigraph, from John Hewitt's "Postscript, 1984": "the whole tarnished map is stained and torn, / not to be read as pastoral again." While Campbell's poems resist any impulse to pastoralize, they do seek, and find, change in natural elements, as in the collection's first poem, "When all this is over," in which sniper signs "rust on the trees," oxidized by the elements and subsumed by "mountain mayflower" and "under-fished lakes." The future peace takes an organic form in which language, landscape, and human breath are inseparable:
I will hear a blood-pause
in the reach of the night
when every word used for batter
and crisis will cruise with the ease
of what runs right through us,
The "when" of the title looks to a time when the speaker will cross the border "over and back / several times to see how it feels" and find a place in nature, which oversees and sanctions peacetime:
I will lie in my form
in overgrown fields
not a chopper in sight.
And they say it is safe
and the weather agrees.
The rehabilitation of the natural world is accompanied in the poems by psychological recovery and social change. The prescriptive "How to get over trauma" advises readers to
"find original purpose, embedded / deep beyond the tribal jag" and to embrace the "life peel of re-birthing" in which "bin lid cacophony" is replaced with permission to "replay / the bloodfill of your story", a motif in other poems in the collection, such as "Campbell" and "When I asked my Dad about Warrenpoint." Yet the process of recovery is not neatly handed over to natural forces or time, and the difficult work of "re-birthing" becomes a responsibility, as in the last lines, which instruct, "Beware, an emptied / mind can make the darkening seasons gather. / Don't ask if spring will lengthen down your fingers, / the knuckles that have eased what felt like triggers." A more collective change is suggested in "The Surprise," in which a B&B "landlady as mean as Ireland in the fifties" acknowledges the iconic images of the Sacred Heart and JFK displayed in her breakfast room that "could do with a good cleaning" and suggests replacing them:
"I must take them down", she says,
"put Paisley there, Bigfoot though he is, he
and that other fellah, came back to the
and handsome enough I suppose, in his own
Campbell's ethos, however, is ambiguous with regard to change. The title poem, which concludes the collection, moves from a call to "Rip the veil, say we were wrong,/call de Valera by his real name" to a final crossing, one that is "approved," in contrast to the "unapproved roads" of the collection's opening lines, but that leaves the reader with a resigned declarative statement: "We're on our way to sign / the long books of condolence."
In poems that are wry, sobering, and lovely, Siobhan Campbell examines the nuances of place and space, how they are altered over time and through narrative, and how we must adapt. This collection is worth savoring and rereading, and one hopes that her next full-length collection is not far behind.
--University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg
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Avoiding the lure of the idyll: Siobhan Campbell’s Cross-Talk
Book Review The Irish Times
POETRY: Cross-Talk By Siobhán Campbell Seren, 71pp, £7.99
Siobhán Campbell brings the characteristically soft diction of the Irish lyric tradition to her third full collection, Cross-Talk, where one man ploughs “a fairy ring” while on the next page another, “her father”, lays about hedgerow foxgloves with “the stick he acquired when he was lamed”. These studies of fear and violence, both domestic and political, are peopled by beaten wives, and girls tarred and feathered “for loving /from the wrong camp”. Yet they’re also full of the soft furnishings of the pastoral, in which sows must farrow, mangels be weeded, and hay made. The reader pauses; registering again the nostalgia for rural tradition which informs the work of poets as various as Bernard O’Donaghue, Maurice Riordan, or even later Durcan (to say nothing, of course, of Heaney).
But women’s experiences in traditional communities differ radically from those of men. Though the strategies of women writing in Ireland today are various, most avoid the lure of idyll. Campbell’s own cunning sideways take on the masculine pastoral has Mother Ireland as a furious farmer’s wife, while 'These Women' is her tribute to the work-hardened women who “make happen the full wake, /the kettle hopping, the oven warm”. As she says, in a poem to which she gives her own name (camhaoil), “It takes a softened tongue to fill a twisted mouth”. If her consistent pessimism occasionally palls, that’s a risk Campbell may have calculated... is a tendency to poeticised understatement so hermetic as to be codified. In Hinterland, “A bout of wintering /along the outer rim /where Antrim makes intention /or else we learn to sing” might address political betrayal... the reader supplies both context and secondary meanings. It will be interesting to see what comes from Welsh publisher Seren’s grafting of this writer’s characteristically Irish tropes onto the equally-established national traditions of their own list.