Subliminal euphonies, Cilla McQueen

Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734204


deep down
musical hearts beat

for no reason no apparent reason


I like the sound of Kate Camp. She has an ear for a harmonic beat within the line that gives it bounce. An alert musical sense works with subliminal euphonies. Sensitivity to chance discrepancies or unusual resonances keeps her stripped-down language lively and open to deflection. She uses it with aplomb.

“After trying to dream about flying” has the odd aptness of dream – holding hands with Christian Cullen, for instance; a “debonair” grandmother in a blue cap; “a steamy affair with a man called Professor Rulings”; “I had two sons and one was named Aplomb.” Recognisable by dreamers, the strange juxtapositions in this poem are akin to the realia which give the book its title.

The Shorter Oxford defines “realia” as, first, objects that may be used as teaching aids but were not made for the purpose, and, secondly, real things, actual facts, as distinct from theories about them. The poems themselves are realia, incorporating realia – real actual poems, unencumbered by theory, incorporating objets bricolés for elucidation of their fine perceptive point, and also objets trouvés in the field of the poet’s experience, which incorporate real, not theoretical, components.

The selection of realia depends on the poet. Fluency in languages both aural and visual leads her to intuit, or to devise, a context. The cover illustration shows that a context such as an empty shelf can bring together disparate objects to achieve multiple possible meanings sparked off by their combination – as valid a system (set up for the duration of the poem) as any other.

Insisting on “unlikely land at every step” (“A Bit Off The Map”), Camp enjoys small ironies and infelicities, cheerfully skews nuances, disrupts register. The realia of words and images in unusual combinations produce unexpected resonances. Uncertainty inhabits these constellations. They present peculiar linguistic circumstances in which the reader is invited to participate.

In the title poem, the poet laments the difficulties that the instability of language can bring to communication: “I turn words around / can’t quite get it right”, observing that “we are all speakers of other languages / dialects of accidental harshness // ways of failing / to be understood” in a difficult grammar beset by “rules, and exceptions to rules”. However, Camp’s experimentation in these “ways of failing / to be understood” is one of the springs of her poetry.

In “Documentaries” the odd jumble of experience witnessed via television leaves the poet bemused. “Two Men Come To Destroy Our Neighbours’ House” sees the puzzling reduction of a once coherent structure to “a section of damp air that used to be / the inside of something warm and square” in apt, startling imagery. The workmen “pry off planks / like butchers. The inside of the house is pink.” A man makes “a whole wall heave / as if the house had nearly drowned” while his truck “plays music to itself all day.”

The “Application for Millennium Funding” gently pokes fun at apparent certainties in a wry manifesto which assures us that “Boy words and girl words /will alternate / but the girl words / will be ruder” (how about “clitoris allsorts” in “Documentaries”?) and delights in aural associations – “And when the poem / is said and done / when it is sturm und drang / when it is shed and dung” – which take the language close to the off-kilter punning of dream.

I enjoyed the layers of thought and experience laid open in “The Village”, where a quarrelling couple plays out a mini-drama “as / in some Elizabethan play” under the eyes of the inhabitants, “concerned / if helpless in our dressing gowns”. The poem zooms in like a television camera to “their disastrous / nest” and out again to the viewpoint of a dangerously complacent observer.

“Old West Miniature Town” contains some arresting dislocations or diversions of sense that disrupt expectations. Camp uses line-breaks to produce over-run lines whose intimation of following meaning is quashed or warped by a perceptible change in tone after the slight hiatus; for instance in “On the back of God / only knows what horse he comes”, and “He inherited his eyes from a faithful / pet who never thought to meet death at your hand.” Those particular examples give me the shivers, somehow, as do the instabilities of “Just Been Kissed”, where the dentists “gaze at my workings // with jeweller’s eyes” and “love me with their strong, taut hands / using my face for purchase.”

Time and the perception of it are a preoccupation in several poems. “Then” sets down the sort of sparse, vivid details that fix it in individual memory. The poet’s parents appear in each of the three sections, her mother in “her kangaroo dress” and father in moccasins in the 1970s when she “first noticed the time”. In the 1950s, which “always seem to be twenty years ago”, the images are like snapshots: a Vauxhall Velox, her young blond father, her mother “a waitress on the shores of Lake Waikaremoana”. In the more immediate “decade starting with zero”, memory slides between past and present in a tense as yet unfixed.

“A Private Geography” considers how association colours memory: “Quite ruined of course / are many stretches of road, sand dunes, / doorways and alleyways and ways of / doing things … innocent roadways alive / with letterboxes are lost to me”; also the sense of place: “called upon to draw a map of the world we would mark / in first the sectors most dear, islands / of no great significance drawn / a hundred times their natural scale”, concluding that “love, like geography / is a science that starts where we are.”

Perhaps presciently, “The Rescue Helicopter” points out the false sense of security felt by those who watch “the choppers /whap whap in with blood / thirsty cargoes and land / where the lights shine them / not here just /over there.”

Camp’s enjoyment of language and her skill in handling it make Realia a strong collection. Her musical ear produces poems that exercise the listening muscles. Overall the effect is of a sharp wit, a sure hand, a curly sense of humour.


Cilla McQueen’s most recent collection is Axis.


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