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Heat Signature

Siobhán Campbell
ISBN-13: 
9781781723678
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 23, 2017
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‘Profoundly challenging and entertaining’ – WriteOutLoud

There is a beautiful ruthlessness to the poetry of Siobhán Campbell. Her new collection, Heat Signature, from Seren, is composed in her characteristically spikey voice: infused with an intelligence that resists easy answers to the conundrums that have faced her Irish homeland, but also suffused with a grudging admiration for the citizens who have survived their tumultuous history. Likewise her ‘nature’ poems observe a natural world either compromised by human interference, or on the brink where nature is about to take its revenge. While these are poems of moral tension, of provocation, they are also artful: full of marvellously terse textures, of clashing consonants, subtle rhymes and insistent rhythms.   Such is the concision and compression of the verse, that individual lines can read as aphorisms such as this couplet from ‘Photos of the Islanders’:

There’s a welcome stapled to their tongue
and they count your leavings when you’re gone

Though such lines are only one part of the tool kit. Campbell can conjure beautiful circular rhythms as in ‘The Latest’ (a pantoum) where the repeated lines chime and mimic the insistent repetitions of news stories that now appear and echo from multiple sources: newspapers, radio and TV and across social media outlets. She pinpoints our confusion at the plethora of information and highlights our complicity in how we receive and respond to facts.

The natural world, in these poems, is often full of portents and warnings. The nearest we get to consolation and/or rapture is the mysterious, unearthly vision of a cornfield in ‘Fodder’ or in ‘Piebald’ where a scruffy horse is “tethered on the edge of new dual carriageways…” and can represent a dream of freedom, of exhilaration, of a ‘world we lost before we named it.”

Most often, as in ‘Republica dolorosa’ and ‘The Longing of the Bees’ the incipient violence of the swarm is detected, a force that seems unamenable to censure or even warning. ‘Ravens’ “…colonise like something moral to be despised’. Cows are given their due as bovine-lazy and sometimes comical creatures, but the author also retains their animal strangeness, “…they hold time in their four stomachs, chewing it down…”.  

The prize-winning ‘Framed’ is based on an all-too-likely anecdote concerning a character called ‘Dinny of the unborn twin’ because of a growth in his neck, and manages to be about small-town (or island) prejudice, the ‘rights of the unborn’ and the jovial harassment of a local priest. The blend of dark comedy, tragedy and politics is entirely typical of Campbell’s complex, thoughtful and profoundly entertaining poetry.

REVIEWS

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 inFlora’. 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.

 

Read the full review

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’.   

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