Jane Campbell’s poetry has edge: it glints rather than glows. ‘Degrading’ is one such example in this raw, uncompromising but strangely beautiful collection. The poem recounts a group of girls surrounding the young poet demanding she prove the arrival of her first period. The ending brilliantly transforms this humiliation into a triumph: ‘recasting them / in perpetuity / slow for their age.’
The theme of change or metamorphoses is present in many of the poems, particularly those to do with parents or lovers. Campbell pays tribute to the political activism of her mother whose frailty in age is a spur not to forget how she impressed her daughter ‘with the importance of rights / that once they had bite were revoked.’ But this tribute has a darker feel in ‘Fairy Tale’ where the speaker apologises for tormenting her parent.
Campbell’s portrayal of her father follows a similar trajectory. At first he is a monumental figure, ‘an army of hands and feet’ but then we see him shrivelling in a hospital bed, while the poet envisages his evolution into a ‘butterfly, then rabbit, then antelope.’ The ending of this poem, ‘Metamorphosis,’ is not only exquisite but also a demonstration of Campbell’s knack of finding new and unusual rhymes.
There is sober realism in the poems about love; a celebration of its joys in ‘May moaning from our mouths,’ and an acceptance of its sorrows. There is a particular poignancy in ‘Let Go’ where though desire has run its course that ‘doesn’t mean / I don’t still love us.’
Campbell is highly versatile. She can write a shocking futuristic poem like ‘Always Alice’ and a gentle, almost Hardyesque one like ‘Wishing Well’ which should be included in any future anthology of English poetry. An ever-present consciousness of mortality does not sour her sense of life’s abundance. ‘Compost Loo’ shows that even waste is a form of enrichment.
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.
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