Alex Creece Reviews Marion May Campbell’s third body

By | 12 March 2019

third body by Marion May Campbell
Whitmore Press Poetry, 2018

Third body takes form on the cusp of metamorphoses between species, ecosystems, technologies, existential planes, and even between art and artist. ‘passing’, the title of its first section, becomes a motif of the entire collection – perhaps most significantly for its variety of meanings. Passing can indicate a liminal phase in journeys bound by space or time. Passing is a euphemism to tactfully describe the transition between life and death. Passing may also represent social transition, such as one’s perceived conformity—or lack thereof—to socially defined binaries like gender and sexuality.

I do not pass at all as
poet man or woman
but laugh
myself to bits
as I pass
into this last
paste-up (‘passing’)

As a scholar of French Literature and avant-garde practices, Marion May Campbell deftly weaves principles of European postmodernism and academic theory into her work to produce an incisive post-structural commentary. The sensibilities of l’ecriture feminine, à la Hélène Cixous, are evident in the inspiration that Campbell draws from female literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson. These are uniquely synthesised with her own eco-poetics and perspectives of marginalisation and globalisation in current-day Australia. The beach serves as common backdrop to these considerations, as demonstrated in ‘semaphore’, where the paradox of human disconnect is conveyed through mismatched flag signals:

our prickliness our devastating need
to kill the other in each other
we resist yet long to merge
though this be murder of all desire
& know to trust these pulses
& yet are raw with the infinite unsaid

Le sujet en procès, the subject (or the self) in process, is also a key postmodern feature of third body, given its ironic self-awareness despite an inherent tenuity of ‘self’ as a concept. The collection presents a challenge for the reader to gain purchase on its subjects in a concrete sense. One moment, we are enveloped in the consciousness of a dog, and the next we may find ourselves as a cat, a painting, a map, or even amid a poem’s own inception on the page before us. This ephemerality, however, works to keep the reader keenly on their toes and open to endeavour of thought:

wounds & exalted jouissance
complex affirmation
what kind of history
& what kind of witness
is possible
when I never coincides with me? (‘passing’)

Mise en abyme, an image mirrored continuously within itself, is another technique that Campbell employs, particularly in the ‘incipient foredune’ section. Ecology is a strong focus here, where each poem represents a different layer of the coastal vista characterised by uncertain vicissitudes but unwavering resilience, as fragile yet unforgiving. For example, ‘in the slack’ allows us to experience the environment in a tactile manner:

through which in dune &
shifting dune we stage

for our ductile selves to meet
beyond these skins

Alternatively, ‘progressive plants’ depicts a more narrative-focused view of the same landscape:

before the hoons
come with their pre-mixed cans
& campfire exploding bourbon bottles
we whisper our way forward
like what dune ecologists call
progressive plants

The final poem in this section, ‘U₂: romance of the sonic survey’, personifies both the setting and the poem itself to merge sensation and environmentalist commentary alike:

the poem shakes
the fault line runs
between us

third body breaks
in a million mercurial 

forget the lads
who toss a bourbon bottle
in the campfire

here come the real dune hoons
trailing their sonic sensors
through all the image-clusters
of our living

The impact of mise en abyme as a poetic function is something to the effect of a Matryoshka nesting doll brought to life, where each segment bears its own significance—its own story-within-a-story—to what lies at the eventual heart of a broader collective narrative. The ‘incipient foredune’ section also effectively highlights Campbell’s Rimbaudian influences, both in her symbolism and the synaesthesia of her language choices. The unpredictable sensory confusion of third body adds to the constant ‘shapeshifting’ nature of her subjects. Nothing in the collection is immune from sentience – that is, from becoming a third body. This idea is playfully demonstrated in the dreamlike dynamism of ‘if not in paint’, where subjects are not bound by the constraints of their original medium:

ashes in her voice
my mother speaks back
on the fourth page
from the long coast of illness
only alive
& red
in my dreams


she tugs to the fifth
page the sky’s
blue fire
willing the whole body
in like a calf at the teat

now she strokes
the keyboard of the palette
with a tenderness she can’t relay
if not in paint

Campbell’s use of colour keeps us suspended in the realm of visual art, only for this to be subverted at each turn with incongruous senses such as sound, movement, and texture. The sequential references to pages not only make the reader aware of themselves literally turning the pages of the poem, but also play into the notion of a self-aware subject progressively ‘painting’ their own narrative. Campbell’s ability to imbue fresh perspective and surrealist humour into once-static images is also evident in her ekphrastic piece, ‘Dorothea Tanning’s Guardian Angels’:

baroque & broken
fold on fold all
falls & shakes

struggling out from 
underpaint of palest gold
her angels shriek some sort of

apical metamorphic need
bearing in beak the remnants of
their own demise

As a highly intertextual collection, Campbell provides a unique intersection of creative and academic concepts. Her work is not only referential of other poets and artists, but also incorporates Freudian psychodynamic theory, philosophical principles in its self-aware ineffability, and knowledge of native flora and fauna as sourced from the Ngaruk Willum people of Port Phillip Bay. Campbell demonstrates the strength of intertextuality in producing a highly-informed collection of transgressive poetry. She holds a mirror to the concept of milieu, not simply as defined by social context, but in its literal translation – a middle point.

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