Marion May Campbell Reviews Rose Hunter and Nellie Le Beau

By | 29 June 2023

But one must not forget that the earth is not merely the repository of precious life traces from ancient eras. In ‘Heat Study II’, Le Beau reminds us that ammunition shell casing coinhabits the earth with worm casts (21). Technology and its great inventions can be awesome, coming to the rescue, as in the comic ‘Prayer to the gods’ – “of air conditioning” (22). In ‘Primary Examiner’, Le Beau finds her father through the physical intricacies of his invention. He is in the hidey hole of his technology, it is implied, rather than at the beating heart of the family:

           […] My father resurrects

Wave length to circuit board, cradled
In each patent diagram.
This is how I found him.


The finality in tone of these three last short declarative utterances, and their closed terminal syllables suggest, to this reader at least, that just as the father “resurrects” and is “cradled” – held and nurtured – by his scientific creations, they might also have circumscribed him, or even been his demise as a human; that at the very least his legacy is constrained here.

But the built environment, for all its apparently concrete stability and structural strength, is fragile indeed. Like a contemporary Fate, the soprano diva sings the catastrophe in. All melts, given the alignments; all breaks:

        […] Crack

of gridiron, the sky
a soprano blur of
early summer, curtained
by cranes, flashing
red lights as a warning

to the cockpit.

     […] The gravel
tower genuflects,

This is the story
of a city, of all cities.

(‘Love is the Pulse of the Universe’, 29)

The owlet who appears at poem’s end is the enigmatic envoy or harbinger of disaster, wherein all human endeavour, all powerful constructions derived from the mining of the Earth (“gravel tower”), are bound to fall. We are again there with Shelley’s Ozymandias. ‘After the warranty, when Detroit becomes snow’, suggests that the extinguishment of Motown’s “warranty” turns it to blanketing snow, figurative as well as literal; that the stories from all that massive human industry are bound to the white noise of collective amnesia (31). Throughout this collection, Le Beau charters the fragmentation of knowledge, the erasure of historical memory, and always the quasi-impossibility of turning witnessing to account; caught in the traumatising event, one is denied narrative access. It is always someone else, somewhere else, who will become (inevitably) the unreliable narrator. As Paul Celan writes before the enormity of the Shoah, “No one / bears witness for the / witness” (2014). ‘After the warranty’ deploys the motif of the doomed ship, the fated dirigible, Hindenburg’s Zeppelin, or the coastal Lusitania, to concretise the notion of repurposing, to which all human creations and structures are bound, with the concomitant loss of memory this bricolage entails. The designer’s purpose, subjected to the randomising trajectories of fate, leads to the oxymoronic state, “the aimless dirigible”. Nevertheless, it finds its destiny in being unrecognizably “fleeced”:

After Perth amboy: aimless dirigible
Fleeced in the new world, parts hacked off
For violins, some limping Detroit melody.
It takes someone from Rio to tell the story
Lost assembly lines, new world tinted ably


In ‘Long Haul’ again, Le Beau meditates on the nature of time, with the perspective offered from aeroplane flight suggesting that this might just as well be thought of as the relation (or ratio) of light wave to water (wave):

you can see how the altitude
anchors light wave
to salt water field.


But these questions of temporal relativity veer into an evocation of Agnieszka the aeroplane steward, serving within “the steel tube” economy class passengers, while her Polish countrymen in an earlier generation had, with similar gestures, striven to save Le Beau’s uncles:

                                                 […] When my uncles
hid in boreal forests, it was you who fed them
bread, placed reeds over the pits they slept in until
the soldiers left.


The “stooping” of Agnieszka’s airborne servitude might seem degraded through this historical montage with the heroic rescue of fugitives in their extreme plight, but then it is also magnified and consecrated by this haloing of cultural memory. Inheritance is this recognition of continuity, especially as we travel in the trust of what escapes comprehension, and we pull back to contemplate the immensity of geological time:

                            […] Agnieszka, this is living
in a steel tube, belonging to an equation
of flight we cannot calculate. Believe me,
Agnieszka, I am giving you a map of the world.
Thin-topped granite, quartz, all the shards
of the volcano, compressed by time and our naming.


It’s as if the “naming” of the poem gives us a time “compressed” and which then re-expands in the reader’s consciousness. Under duress from those in power, as with Hunter, we women have to barter with our bodies to save our skins, just like the biblical Esther:

[…] we unclasp our dress-
belt, shuck our scalp, make
our way through earthen
corridors to the king’s bed horrified
by what we’ll do for life.


But not all of us can delay death by such bargaining; the lineation in ‘from Pilgrim’ mimes the dumping of dead women in their shrink wrapped skin amongst other detritus of consumption:

     in Gas City
we lose a girl each

week. I mean
     woman. Shrink
     wrapped. Left
behind the lawn

mower, between curved
           and aerosol cans 
long expired.


Nor does optimistic emigration necessarily bring one to a better life:

I think of the women who made me.
Sifting their names through softer vowels,
they climbed from husked field beds
onto flat ship hulls, towards a radius 
of disappointment. 
The great disguise, the disembarking.

(‘Praising the Northern Loon’ 38)

But it is also the role of the poet to test the radius of expectation to undermine the safety of habitual categories. For instance, ‘Praising’, coming after ‘Plague’, invokes the curse of insect-borne disease and blight, only to end on a note of praise for the gangrene-eating maggot, saving the war-wounded:

                                 […] In war
clusters of maggots sterilize


In ‘from The Garlic Wife’, inheritance is physically felt in the weight of tradition, through the compulsive repetition of heterosexual orthodoxies attending the bondage of marriage, one feels the presentiment of doom with the weight of a wedding dress:

I married by the ocean
                       in a second hand veil
astonished by the weight of my wedding dress at the ceremony.


In ‘Days of Awe’, “[a]fter the stoning”, what passes for gendered moral policing and piety in an Orthodox Jewish cleansing ceremony is staged in its shockingly violent ironies:

This whole time, boys played in the sand
Their kippas pinned to them, their sister
Thick with stockings. Boys threw sand.
Their lips opened, and shut.

To ensure the perfection of the world
We crushed the back
Of every shell, walking
All the way home.


However, the more-than-human becomes a compensatory source of wonder, and some of the most exquisite poems in the collection, like ‘Occupation’ celebrate birds, with birdsong rising from concealment into miracle:

The reed warbler began
Her uncomfortable song. Green shoots
Masked her; last year’s brown stalks
Parted by the snake bird, who swam up

From the mud. Opened his wings
Then every bird landed. And a child
Walked through the sea
Of reeds. And we knew
It was a day like any other.


Wonder thus walks the quotidian way – “it was a day like any other”. On the other hand, mythic avatars appear to be divested of their magic, as in ‘Scheherazade’, where the eponymous figure has apparently lost her narrative gifts, “she had run out of tongue” (49). Yet, as fur-bearer for the persona’s grandfather, she rears in profile with the grace of an iconic queen:

but here, in arctic air all
that was left for him to do

was watch her walk silent
chin steady, on the road to petitecote.

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