Letters to the Tremulous Hand by Elizabeth Campbell
John Leonard Press, 2007
These latest releases from John Leonard Press are further evidence of this newish publisher's determination to make room for new poetic voices in Australia. Both Holt and Campbell are young, born in the first years of the eighties, and with Man Wolf Man and Letters to the Tremulous Hand respectively, Holt and Campbell have released their first full-length collections. Furthermore, both poets were born in Melbourne and both have spent time at university studying history. But, in spite of these common biographical details, Holt and Campbell are very different poets, with very different voices.
Holt's book is the more assured. Her collection latches onto the reader from the opening lines of the opening poem, 'Man is Wolf to Man':
Until the consummation of things:
man, wolf, man. A man hangs
like an amulet. His death to counter-
weight the deaths by his hand,
assuming God has a sense of balance.
Reviewing Holt's 2005 chapbook Stories of Bird in Cordite, Angela Meyer pointed to the control that Holt exerts over her material, producing private, precise and vividly-realised poetry. This control is also evident in Man Wolf Man. Although thematic or tonal unity is not essential to the success of a collection, her book inspires attention as she persuades the reader through successive poems.
The book's title is derived from one of Goya's sketches, and the Spanish master's presence here is palpable. The eight 'long sonnets' projected from the mind of Goya's housekeeper (and possible mistress) Leocadia go beyond appropriation or pastiche, displaying real empathy and respect for one of the world's great artists. These eight poems, with their casual but persuasive rhyme scheme, are well-positioned within the overall structure of Holt's book. They bring us Goya's darkness, adding more layers to Holt's own. In 'Capricho 1', for example: 'Beauty strikes your soul / but never wins your sight, beauty too steadfastly / beauty to fascinate. But every horror a new eyehole // for you to focus: an idiot dancing to his own world's / measure'.
Other historical and artistic figures appear in Holt's collection. In different poems she writes from the perspective of, or responds to, Max Klinger, Primo Levi, Louis Althusser, Judith Wright and John Singer Sargent. She is fond of assuming other identities, keen to take advantage of the freedom this gives her to explore foreign perspectives in her poems. She concludes 'The New World', for example, with these lines, addressed to an orchidectomist:
No stories will console if I must be exiled from my only
plausible history: my boyhood, my rentboy-hood, my body
complex, ornate and two-sexed, my unwritten denouement
Holt's ability to empathise with other personalities and transpose the life and work of other artists is a key feature of the book. But it is tiring reading some of the poems, annoying at times to have to remind yourself of who she's referring to. Every time I pick up Man Wolf Man it unfurls to poems that seem more straightforward; but they are poems that appear less simple each time they are re-read. Here is 'Sedimentary Layers', unabridged:
If a geologist were to wander in
And see us lying here
-my head on your chest but
Your legs on top of mine-
He'd certainly be a little perplexed
Over whether you or I came first.
Balancing the sometimes awkward weight of literary allusion and poetic license are other poems, such as 'The Children and the World' and 'A Problem of Filing', which also seem to contain the mind's unfiltered thoughts; they are deeply accessible but complex in their simplicity and never short on insight. The final three lines of 'Pompeii', a poem in which the poet describes the response of a digging party to the discovery of petrified lovers in the buried city, for example, have stuck in my mind: 'And no-one wants to be preserved alone, found alone, / laid out in a museum cabinet not as a messy ode / to love but as a single set of numbered bones.'
This is what Holt's best poems give us: an alloy of longing and lust, cast in a mould where death is ever-present and the time to love and be loved, to speak and to listen, is diminishing.
Although Elizabeth Campbell's forms and themes often differ from Holt's, Letters to the Tremulous Hand also contains many poems that explore the relationship of past to present and of past and present to the future. One of the book's epigraphs, a line from Australian poet Jennifer Harrison, reads 'is memory the soul?'; Campbell's collection repeatedly returns, though diverse paths, to this idea.
Campbell is an excellent exponent of free verse. She understands its limitations and potential, and so exploits it to great effect in many of her stronger poems. Her lines are generally shorter than Holt's. Her stanzas seem more anarchically arrayed. But her best poems are no less orderly. Campbell's best free verse, on display in 'Asthma', 'Recurring', 'Forget' and elsewhere, is free verse that guides the reader through each stanza, elucidating intended meanings and soundings; her punctuation and use of enjambment (which, both within and between stanzas, often replaces formal punctuation) acts as a guide to the ear and mouth as well as the eye.
In 'Fetch', for example, Campbell's description of a man thrown into a river when his canoe capsizes is vividly rendered:
Hopelessly, radically embodied, you thrashed
sucked water and began to die and suddenly
how to receive your
suddenly unexpected release. Somewhere above
had ceased to beat and all your parts
into the whole, cured flesh of a corpse.
This ability – to carefully structure a line, a stanza, and a poem – is also on display in 'Talent-', possibly the finest piece in her collection, where Campbell writes: 'good – good – good / – tell her / she's good – she is – / this is all new – / now the wall – how / did that feel? – okay – / she's a mess – that's enough / for today'. The designated subject of 'Talent' is a horse learning to jump. And horses appear, or seem to, in almost half the poems in this collection.
The author blurb tells us that Campbell grew up with horses in the Yarra Ranges and still keeps one. The horse poems in this collection reveal a deep love for the animal. In 'Structure of the Horse's Eye', 'Forget', 'Vices', 'Longitude' and many others, horsey habits, physiognomy and personalities provide Campbell with some rich subject matter. So constant is their presence in this book that it is tempting to interpret them as signifying something other than themselves. This is a book of poetry after all, where language is an open collar rather than a belt. But Campbell cautions against interpretation in 'Equus', where a friend, mistaking the horse for a symbol, 'mistakes / my grieving horse for Horses, / Horse, The Horse and with her pen / she puts out all our eyes.' This poem's sentiment is also present in 'Proverb':
No more allegories – let's agree
proverbs help nobody.
No parables, I beg of you.
But then, who could love detail for its own sake?
Surely a gentle mind turns straight
away to symbol?
The ten poems that comprise the title sequence that closes the book distil many of themes and ideas found in the earlier pages of the collection. In these poems we recognise the echo of her epigraphs as Campbell explores another past – not as historian, although her subject is historical, but as the poet she has shown us she is capable of being.
Campbell tells us in a two-page prose introduction to the sequence that 'The Tremulous Hand' is the modern name given to an anonymous thirteenth century English scholar and scribe. The Tremulous Hand's own words, which Campbell discovered during an overseas research trip, form the basis of a few of these poems. The dedication of this little-known English lexicographer to his work has clearly been an inspiration to a poet who found him early in her own writing career. 'Letters to the Tremulous Hand' addresses many long-longstanding poetic themes, in particular the role of art in transposing real personalities and real life. In 'ansyn/face' she writes:
What do we do
when we take another's words and say them
again in a different hand?
The dig-marks of quotation frame our speaking
in a gilt-edged glass: my face your word's end.
by its chosen form – Art curates
the historic soul and History is prospecting –
as if we are choosing the face of they
that come for us
by picking among the dead to see
who had consciousness, who not.
This title sequence improves with repeated readings. The variety of free-verse forms is immediately apparent here as elsewhere, but what isn't so obviously on display is the manner in which Campbell succeeds in using her nominated subject to illustrate the self she has depicted earlier in the collection. What at first seems to be a sequence awkwardly appended to the earlier poems ends up being an essential element of the whole.
Letters to the Tremulous Hand, like Man Wolf Man, isn't necessarily easy reading; its focus is often too literary, the poems too often packed with scholarly references, for that. Campbell and Holt both include a page of notes to supplement the poems; the notes unpack allusions and explain the genesis of lines and signifiers. But their best poems need no supplement.
Campbell and Holt are both capable of great insight. Both books prove that their authors have the special capacity for speaking authentically about themselves, their subjects and their readers. It's a pity that first collections struggle to get enough coverage outside poetry circles to draw many new readers towards poetry because, in different ways, both Man Wolf Man and Letters to the Tremulous Hand give something new to Australian poetry. There is in both an undeniable determination to say something about the world we live in now, however hidden beneath layers of the past. Their next books, if they choose to share their words with us again, may well be books that inspire a change in how our poets are received and read.
Gus Goswell tutors in the University of Melbourne's Media & Communications program and maintains a weblog.