Shadow lines, Lewis Scott

The Better Part
Meg Campbell
Hazard Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1877161276

Postscripts
J C Sturm
Steele Roberts, $19.95,
ISBN 1877228354

It would be remiss of this reviewer not to note that these two women poets, who have their own growing reputations, are/were married to poets of considerable standing in the New Zealand literary world: Meg Campbell to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and J C Sturm to the late James K Baxter. It would be foolish to pretend that the shadows of the men they married have not become a part of their own shadows. It would be equally foolish not to deal with the extra baggage from Jump Street and then get beyond that and deal with the shadows they have shaped for themselves with their own words. That may be easier to say than to do. But first, those other shadows.

Sturm’s extra shadow is visible in her poem “Twenty-five years later”:

Of those early years,
his passion for words
and burning intention
to make them remake his world,
is what I remember best.
The rest is blurred images,
uncertain memories,
even wishful thinking.

 

Meg Campbell’s other shadow can be glimpsed in the poem “A Time For Leaving”:

alone, in a nightmare
frightened by your anger,
perplexed by your indifference.
I couldn’t know the cause.

I left you more than once
not to hurt you,
but to leave life altogether.
I failed in this.

Had an affair with an electric
machine. Shook me
into brain-baking flight.
As often as I left you,
I returned …

2

Now to the shadows of the poets themselves. Meg Campbell’s shadow evokes images of a woman locked in a dark room with the sound of dripping water resonating through her two minds. After reading and swallowing her words (some of these poems do make you want to swallow), one is left with the feeling that having given the demons a bridge to cross over from the subconscious to the conscious, she is no longer their jailer. Both states of mind are set free to roam here, and the first poem, “Heredity”, jumps right into our judgemental faces:

Inescapably, this is me – the diagnosis
is cause for anger at those
who brightly say we choose our destinies.
There is no store of courage,
wit or will can save me from myself,
and I must face my children,
feeling like that wicked fairy
coming uninvited to the christening
to bestow on my own
amidst murmurs of apprehension,
a most unwanted gift –
that of a blighted mind.

 

This first poem is in one sense the blueprint for the collection, and the collection is a personal journey in the company of family and demons whose surnames are Fear, Hurt, Anger, Expectation, Disillusionment – and some stuff in between. The poems are the receipts (paid in full) for having the company of such good “friends”. As the old folks say, ugliness resides where you find it.

So, if The Better Part is seen as a journey, what has the travel been like – and do the poems go beyond the house Campbell has built for herself? The answer to the second part of the question is No, but no is not bad. These poems are the chronicle of a woman who may, or may not, have escaped from the “house of mirrors”, and, to judge by pieces like “Impunity”, their birth from the womb has not always been easy:

I was a naughty young girl!
In my father’s garden
animals and birds bred
with impunity.
In the dark I stood with one
big boy after another
and those boys were natural
as the tree trunks, and my
skirt, lifted up, said it all.
We stood in pools of light
shed by the many windows
of my father’s house.

 

She writes intimate memoirs, and many of them are dressed in the raw truth of what fathered them. As R D Laing has said, people don’t go mad, they just sometimes go and live elsewhere. Meg Campbell’s poems are about the elsewhere-ness of where and how she has travelled in finding her way here. They are from her world and as the opening lines of “Journeys” reveal:

At the end of the journey we built
another pyramid, intending
to rendezvous with the gods.

 

Some would say demons by another name.

 

3

Unlike Meg Campbell, J C Sturm does not often dance overtly with the shadow of the man she married. The demons are there, but not so naked. The peeping toms and voyeurs who come to Postscripts seeking an autopsy of the Sturm/Baxter union will not see much blood-letting, though there is some, as in “Twenty-five years later”:

It has taken me twenty-five years
to admit he always had
more than one life,
more than one leading lady.
It is hard to say,
harder to accept:
the most he ever had
was not what he took from me,
the most I ever had
was what I gave to him.

 

There is also some blood in the poem “In defence of a dead poet”, but it’s from a different cut of the knife. They say (the old of the world) that most animals can smell and know their own blood, so those of you who can smell the blood will know:

Now they turn their backs on him,
The clever boys,
Jeer with witty cryptic phrases.
Minimal is what they like
Minimal is what they do …

Most were still babies
Poohing their nappies
When he was in his writing prime.

 

This is Sturm’s second collection of poems. Her first, Dedications, was published in 1996. Of the two collections Sturm has said, “When I had finished Dedications, I still hadn’t finished what I had to say. That’s why I’ve called the second book Postscripts … sometimes when you write a letter the thing you really want to say you add as a postscript.”

So what is being said (beyond the Baxter flashes) in this PS? Sturm’s poems speak to us from a broad canvas – there is philosophy and love, history and anger, death and life. “Her history” reflects our need, in spite of beauty, to make love with much of life’s ugliness:

Her father
couldn’t live with her mother
and went away.

Her mother
couldn’t look after her
and went away too …

The father of her first son
was a street kid.
He left her seven months pregnant.

The father of her second son
was different.
He wanted to stay and so he did.

The daughter they wanted
was still-born.
That changed everything.

Her father came back
with cancer in his mouth.
He went down south.

Her mother came back
with Jesus in her heart.
She went up north.

 

There is also the PS that deals with our relationship with death, as in “What I’d like”:

I don’t much like the thought
Of being stretched out straight
And stiff in a long box
With all the warmth gone out
Of me. I don’t like to think of it
Or whatever follows after …

As for the spot: definitely
Not that place up the river –
I’d hate that – or in a lonely
Valley or up a hill too steep
To climb easily. You might
Like to visit on my
Anniversary Day.

And, at the last, perhaps the full stop to the postscript in “Let go, unlearn, give back”:

Give back, but gently
Loving and being loved.
Then leave them, in the leaving time
And go alone.

4

Meg Campbell and J C Sturm write poetry that draws on what they see looking back at them when they look into their respective mirrors. There are similarities in the looking-glass – but the voices they use are different. Campbell’s knife is jagged, and her poems cut in such a manner – you feel it immediately. Sturm’s knife is sharp, and her poems cut with a smoother stroke. What the reader takes away from both collections is a sense that these poets have made love to their demons, and the poems they have given birth to reveal the pain and truth and understanding born from their experience. The afterbirth hasn’t yet been buried.

 

Lewis Scott’s latest collection of poems, Earth Colours, will be reviewed in our August issue.

 

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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