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.