Not Right in the Head

Robert Moore on Chad Campbell’s debut collection of poems, Laws & Locks
 

YOU MAY NOT tell much about a book of poetry from its cover, but a great deal can be gleaned from its choice of epigraph.  The best are, as Jonathan Russel Clark puts it, “less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class.” 

Chad Campbell, courtesy of Vehicule Press

Chad Campbell, courtesy of Vehicule Press

The epigraph from Laws & Locks, Chad Campbell’s estimable debut, is from Dylan Thomas’s “Love in the Asylum”:  “A stranger has come/ to share my room in the house not right in my head.” The long lesson this apt epigraph prepares us for is twofold.  Firstly, “Love in the Asylum” is a kind of fevered ars poetica: the stranger in Thomas’ poem is that part of our selves in touch with the necessary madness through which the muse often speaks.  Laws & Lock is likewise concerned with the conceit, and consequences, of the mind-as-house divided against itself. The poems track the provenance of the House of Campbell, from the Scots ancestors who first came to Canada in the early nineteenth century, to the speaker’s manifestly “not right in [her] head” mother.  Campbell’s interest in mining the past as the source of present malaise is explicit in “The Provincial Asylum”: 

Reaching backwards, it doesn’t take very long – seven,
eight generations – until there are no records of us,
of anyone suffering from madness, the long seasons
in bed, or from addiction.  All you find are ghost ships
sailing in books with a few mad crew, pushed there,
in part, by a belief that a return to the elements
can heal a broken mind….

The poems in this book can be read effectively as “ghost ships” carrying  “a few mad crew” who answer to the name Campbell. The possibly misguided “belief that a return to the elements/ can heal a broken mind” could pass muster as the book’s foundational principle.                                                           

The will to reach backwards brings us to epigraph’s second implication:  the collection’s peculiarly concentrated, even over-determined, nostalgia.  That longing for home (the word comes from the Greek nóst, or a return home), along with Campbell’s exquisite sense of sound, recalls the Thomas of “Fern Hill.” Consider, for example, these lines from the closing of “Et In Arcadia Ego,” the book’s opening poem: 

So our heads may have grown thick with other’s
reflexes & to flinch under shadows in the ceiling might be
a house born burning in the child’s mind.

Laws & Locks is one of the strongest books of poetry I’ve read this year, and easily among the best debut collections I’ve read in years.

The adult waking to hear the farm forever fled from the childless land—green, dying, and singing in his chains—is very much one with which Campbell finds common cause. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “February Towers,” the third of the collection’s five sections.  Shifting focus from the long dead Campbell progenitors who people the book’s first two sections, this suite of poems takes up a matter closer to home; the speaker’s relationship with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother, an obvious avatar of the stranger in Thomas’s poem. Invoking a normalcy and connection this mother is manifestly incapable of providing, the speaker is reduced to a defensive position on the couch—in a “staleness of waiting”—and resists caring for “all actions she shoots out beyond:/ eating, not cleaning; dressing, not washing; smoking/ but leaving the ash.”      

One’s past and past relation are, for Campbell,  a source of permanent dislocation and damaged emotions, a matrix of sympathy and bred-in-the-bone estrangement for which there’s no escape, save possibly the grave. The ambivalence any loved one would feel for such a mother—and by implication, for such a family—is, if we can tax the epigraph with additional responsibilities, inextricably bound up in the creativity that drives the force through this collection’s fuse. The laws and locks which give structure and form to the now-not-right-in-the-head speaker are the poems.

As noted above, the book identifies the past as its preoccupation early.  As Campbell explains in the full-page “Note,” by way of introducing his ancestors, “[t]heir voices are like long echoes, reshaped and altered by the landscapes and language they meet here, in this time.  But, allowing voices to occasionally blend is also to acknowledge that vast portion of these figures [sic] lives that were, and will remain, theirs and unknown.”  In light of the magic he works with those figures, I find Campbell’s demurral on any claim of authority over a “vast portion” of their lives at once curious and instructive.

For a poet, you’d think that acknowledging the obdurate inaccessibility of any consciousness, including one’s own, would come dangerously close to stating the obvious. Why take the trouble to warn us away from a category error no one after Benjamin, let alone Sebald, would be tempted to make? Because Campbell is pre-emptively preparing the reader for his decision to stake the book’s success on what he does “know”: himself. Here, at last, we arrive at the nub of the problem.  Campbell’s vision of the past in Laws & Locks—that it’s a fiction populated by versions of the self—ultimately hamstrings the imaginative scope of this otherwise impressive collection, a collection everywhere convincing in its parts, but curiously limited in its whole.  Why limited?  Because it amounts to something of a sustained exercise in what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias.” Everywhere it looks it sees the forms, figures, shadows and lineaments of a primal wounding that collapses the world into a single ego.

***

The self and lyric poetry, of course, have always had a somewhat strained relationship.  As Mark Jarman puts it, “That the lyric poet has only himself or herself for company has been the cause for much discomfort for awhile now.”  The way around the problem – the means to achieve necessary distance between self and world –has been, as Jarman notes (citing Mary Kinzie) to construct a “shadow self…which is really nothing more than a persona, a Yeatsian mask.”  The efficacy of the shadow self Campbell assumes in this collection, however, is undermined not simply by its avowed interest in the poet’s self—it’s virtually wall-to-wall Campbell between these covers—but by the book’s structure.

The collection is structured centripetally; that is, over the course of its five sections, it moves diachronically toward the present, private and personal; from a sampling of ancestral voices (the source of those “long echoes”) reconstructed from scraps and suggestions (the shored up fragments common to any family worthy of the distinction), to a suite of poems concerning the speaker’s mother’s frightening descent into madness, to two concluding sections featuring the first-person speaker’s adventures in the “landscapes and language…in this time” promised in the book’s opening “Note.”   This structural movement from the putatively impersonal to the abidingly personal is suggestive, if only because it implicitly insists that even the most ambitious imaginative flight from the self (as in imagining the interiority of one’s distant and decidedly foreign progenitors) is really only another way of talking about yourself. 

In other words, what the structure of the book effectively does is turn the long dead so marvelously quickened in the first sections—their pockets full of unheimlich—into a chorus whose principal function is to prepare us to meet the book’s real love interest, the suffering fruit of their vanished loins.  (One of the functions of art, I believe, is to structure a flight from the self.  Or, as Eliot put it, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”)  Thus what starts out as richly imagined biography dwindles by degrees into autobiography.  Thus the white oak in the wonderful “Girdling” from the opening section “Pale Scots Farmers,” turned by one of Campbell’s ancestors (Duncan) into a thing with “two heads…one in the earth; the second,/ all leaves,” eventually (d)evolves into “the crooked/ branches of October elms” in the book’s last poem, “Longings Brittle as the Crooked”:  “[S]how me/ the door in the earth so I could/descend,” asks the poet,

& for a time, just a time, experience
the root’s eyeless dedication, relieve
what worries the wood, emerge a courage of leaves.

Thus the poems come across not so much as elegiac as exercises in a kind of applied necromancy; they seek to invest the departed with life, but that interest is curiously qualified.

***

The self and lyric poetry, of course, have always had a somewhat strained relationship.

As family drama—the family as the source of a curse passed from generation to generation—Laws & Locks is a Canadian Oresteia, only without the laughs of the original. There is in the entire volume, so far as I can tell, no lapse into the humourous or even the vaguely ironic (Nabokov’s line from Speak, Memory, “In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much,” could easily have made it to the shortlist for this volume’s epigraph).  It is a very dark book. Over the course of its progress through two centuries of Campbells, very little emotional or intellectual light mitigates the gloom of the book’s opening reminder that death is only a breath away or that Canada, for all its apparent promise to an immigrant, “was a thought/ that couldn’t stopper the dark/ rank water of a dark/ rank hold.” 

Along with the consistency of shadow, neither the basic subject matter nor the point of view, tone, or essential scheme of techniques of this collection much varies.  And this, I think, is one of its strengths, especially for a first book.  Campbell isn’t about to be distracted from his solemn agenda by the merely arcane.  (This is the advice he tacitly offers in “Lighthouse Beats” to poets whose tastes might run to the postmodern:  “Too easy to write of oddities, catalogue curious things – / mistake a peculiarity of vision for feeling.”)  As a result of this discipline, Laws & Locks isn’t what so many debut collections tend to be:  a potpourri of voices—of attitudes either struck or borrowed—from a poet who has yet to find his or her own.  These poems, rather, read as if they sprang fully formed from the settled and accomplished brow of a mature, mid-career poet.

And what of those fully-formed poems?   Frankly, I’m not sure they are poems.  They’ve given up so much in the way of form and rhyme and very often metre that they read, and are consistently made, like a very high order of prose.  Ignoring the pro forma line breaks and idiosyncratic ampersands, tell me the following isn’t prose: 

He is trying to explain
to the letter that followed him all those months & contained his
first identity, that, chosen or given, our names are always lying.

That’s a very pretty sentence, and the flourish of wisdom toward which it builds is solid stuff, honestly earned.  Or how about this, from “Girdling,” one of the collection’s best pieces: 

Months later, the trees are
mostly dead, the strongest
turned a furious, if final
red, but the others
stand in the fields
creaking, their hollow
sound freely
leaks though the moss-
sealed walls.

If I’m unsure that the foregoing is poetry, I’m fairly certain that, with Campbell’s work at least, I don’t much care to worry the distinction. That is, I’m willing to allow, following Clive James’s half-serious definition of poetry—a poem is “any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context”—that Laws & Locks is chock-a-block full of excellent poetry.  The various syntactical and aural strategies—the prosody—that hold individual poems together (see, for example, the use of ‘e’ sounds in the passage above) are such that each part, each moment in sometimes very long poems, draws considerable strength and meaning from the whole.

My reservations over this gifted young lyric poet’s flirtation with the solipsistic notwithstanding, Laws & Locks is one of the strongest books of poetry I’ve read this year, and easily among the best debut collections I’ve read in years.  It’ll be fascinating to see what Campbell does once that stranger who has come to share his room in his house not right in the head allows him out of the house, and he elects to reach in some other direction than backwards.


ROBERT MOORE, a critic and playwright, is the author of four collections of poetry, with a fifth, Based on Actual Events, due out in the fall of 2016.
 

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