Aden Rolfe Reviews Marion May Campbell

17 May 2010

Fragments from a Paper Witch by Marion May Campbell
Salt Publishing, 2008

Marion May Campbell's Fragments from a Paper Witch arrived not without anticipation. Despite the publication of four of her novels and the staging of several theatre works, this is her first collection, drawing together diverse works of poetry, prose poetry, fictocritical essay and performance writing. Most of these pieces were written between 1985 and 2004, and all but a handful have been previously published, collected or dramaturged. But Campbell has avoided a ‘best of' mode with this book, steering away from self-showcasing in favour of thematic continuity.

Campbell's intention has been to create a collection where the works speak to each other and come together as a whole. In this framework the distinction between forms is less important than their deliberate blurring, resulting in poetry as stage play and essay as prose poem. As Gail Jones says in the preface, ‘The boundary of form … is finally less real than the ardour it flexibly promotes.' This is exactly the feature that, as in the work of writers like Anne Carson and Hélène Cixous, excites in this collection, and it is here that the book's inherent quality lies.

And so the book occurs somewhere between a poetry collection and a Carsonian construction. There is no overt narrative that guides the text, but there's a coherence of image and idea that underpins the collection, placing it in the vein of works like Men in the Off Hours and Decreation. In both of these, Carson combines and blurs genres – script, poetry, essay, interview, opera – shaping a larger text around particular themes and concerns, and a similar construction can be seen in Campbell's book.

In Fragments, the chief concerns are reading and writing, and how these acts transform the reader-writer into their characters and creations. Campbell thus occurs in several guises in the text, at times becoming Ariadne or Mallarmé, and playing the changing roles of woman, man and mother. The latter appears most notably in the poetic essay ‘Spectacular Motherhood':

The mother can return monstrously when we least expect it. She can take the guise of a horse's head on a gate post at the edge of a prince's terrain; she asserts herself as a troubler of boundaries, she haunts liminal moments, saying: If your mother knew, it would break her heart.

These identities are never fixed, and Campbell is constantly aware of her gender performance, as in this confession in ‘the prowler': ‘I write sometimes like a straight guy. What I dredge up in my draglines, you'd be surprised.' This example also illustrates her foregrounding of the writerly materials and process, and how these are bound up with the body. The writer's body occurs variously monstrous, visceral or gangrenous. In ‘i, of the swarm', it's going necrotic, ‘dying from the fingers and toes up, the blackness gaining hold.'

Campbell's approach to language is an honest one, in that she accepts its inherent deceit: its ability to disguise or erase itself, its tendency to masquerade or coerce. In this, she doesn't try to represent higher experience through words, but rather, she constructs writing out of language. This entails a sense of play, of seeing what happens, of letting her characters dictate the terms, such as the figure of ‘the prowler':

The prowler is sniggering in the labyrinth of my ear; he is the marauder in the margins of my notebooks. The prowler says: arrest that contour, fix that line!

This also manifests in her use of puns and broken clichés. Whether she gets away with these or not (‘they despise puns, they upset their curricula vitae'), they're engaging because you see the process behind the words. When you interact with language intimately, when you roll the word ‘minotaur' round in your mouth or at the end of your pen, its various homonyms announce themselves unwittingly: ‘minor tor', ‘minor flaw', ‘minus the Minotaur'. In her puns, the words become viscous, sticking to the author's fingers, detaching and reattaching elsewhere, to other words.

The focus on mythological characters in the collection (Ariadne and Minos, Icarus and Daedelus, Antigone and Creon), along with the recurring images of stars and planets, and of Mallarmé's constellations, makes the work seem to occupy a space above the ordinary. In physical terms, it's a place that sits above or outside our reality; in mythological terms, it's the realm above the human. Campbell's suggestion is that writing automatically exists in this unreal space, a metatextual world where Greek gods rub shoulders with French romantics, and all stop to greet the author. It's a space created by writing, where any movement through textual association or allusion is permitted, but also one grounded in modern-day politics: visas, razor wire, propaganda, state violence.

There's another serious concern in Campbell's work, that of the problem of coming to write, which she explicates most compellingly in her description of cryptamnesia in ‘i, of the swarm':

Used in a Freudian sense, pointing to the unconscious motivations of forgetting the context of an utterance or event, and then later recovering the memory as if it were a product of one's own imagination. I would contest that were cryptamnesia not at work, one could scarcely write, finding at every turn the warning signals of plagiarism flashing.

This concept seems to underpin her practice both poetically and pragmatically, and highlights the other important aspect of her writing, that it doesn't begin or end with her, but is part of a continuum that started before the collection and continues after. This is a strong feature of the poem ‘1999', where a parade of cameos help her consider the implications of silence and speech, of transmission and reception:

– is there a mouth out there
Paul Celan asked
– to relay the question
if not an ear?

This poem appears in the third section of the book, ‘that horizontal vertigo', which takes its name from Jean Genet, who used the phrase in a letter to Derrida as a way to describe writing. The horizontal vertigo is the thought, the invention, the act. The poem ends on the book's most influential character and leading man, Mallarmé, and his scattered accident from ‘Un coup de dés':

in retrospect his despair was bright
that in the scattered accident
constellations still might –

Fragments from a Paper Witch succeeds in cohering its various forms into a provocative and engaging collection, more interesting than a work in a single mode. The book was shortlisted earlier this year for the South Australian Premier's Award for Innovation, attesting to its success in this regard. The collection's flaw is simply that it is a collection, and not a series of pieces written specifically for this project. I have the feeling that if it had been constructed in this way, it would go even further, be even more complete, and not break off like Mallarmé's scattered accident. But you can't begrudge a collection being a collection. Despite being written across twenty years, the authorial voice and concerns are strong throughout, and the language remains erudite and playful. Like her novels, Fragments asserts Marion May Campbell as a troubler of boundaries, and I look forward to seeing her produce a cross-genre collection that reaches full flight.

Aden Rolfe is a writer and co-director of the Critical Animals Creative Research Symposium.

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