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Heat Signature

Siobhán Campbell
ISBN-13: 
9781781723678
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 23, 2017
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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 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 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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