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  • Patrick Romero McCafferty

(SPAM Cut) 'Sleepers' by Nancy Campbell

Three overlayed blue squares with a single train track running from the right hand side to the bottom left corner. The uppermost image is glitchy with primary colour hues.

In this SPAM Cut, Patrick Romero McCafferty listens closely to the ambient transitions simmering in Nancy Campbell’s poem ‘Sleepers’, searching for what is tender between bodies and places.

Poet, ecological pilgrim and maker of artist’s books, Nancy Campbell traverses genres in her work just as she traverses the polar regions of Greenland and Iceland. It’s this spirit of exploration that draws me to her, a lyric beacon beaming up the mythic, ambient and nominal properties of the places she goes to. ‘Sleepers’, published in issue five of Bath Magg, turns the focus of Campbell’s peripatetic imagination inward. Its title draws transit (real and figurative) and its sonic trappings (trammelled, facilitating, nonverbal yet sapient) into comparison with two beings asleep: the relationship between them, and the way it spans both time and geography. But maybe a more important evocation ‘Sleepers’ throws up is of the poetic act as vehicular –– the poet’s almost involuntary search for a word and the neutral void of a lonely night neither willing nor unwilling to receive it:

I / pause for a word and remember another room / a different quiet waiting for a word / a time before and after speech

It’s not the putting into words that sparks the meditation but the pause and consequent memory journey. The sleepers of the railway become an apt metaphor for how the poetic process, in its stop-and-start way (rhythmically supported by the in-text line breaks), conveys or carries a relationship –– as well as the inner life of whoever’s uttering it –– through the world. This is a stunning idea, celebrating intimacy’s inherent poetry and making a case for poetry as the ethereal, pluripotent (only half articulate!) ‘wow’ that gives relationships their meaning.

I lie in bed, while curving rails below pull / a tram through silence into sudden sound

While 'Sleepers' is a poem with sonics at its core –– the beating heart, the fountain pen, the trammelling of wheel on rail, the scrape of rail, the scrape of pen, the phenomenological thereness of their sounds in the dark vividness of night and memory –– these are part of the inner environment into which the reader witnesses the poem being written, whose key feature is its nocturnal quiet. I first heard Campbell read at a Nature Writing symposium in Munich ahead of the release of The Library of Ice, her poetic memoir of Arctic travel and climate change, and I was struck by the importance of silence in her representations of landscape and culture alike in the poems from Disko Bay. I remember angelica, footprints and ochre drops of blood in snow: a silence not of romantic reflection but of matter: living, conscious, radiating. Unlike the archival stillness evoked in the titular library above, however, the sleepers in ‘Sleepers’ offer a metaphor for silence as durational (and indeed material) as the raucous machinations of verbal thought come screeching round the bend:

while curving rails below pull / a tram through silence into sudden sound / the wheels scrape / an edge of metal grating on another edge / a screech repeating through the dawn until you wake /

Campbell is a poet with an eye and ear for the specifics and names of locale, which goes some way to explain the way the poem realises the poet’s search to examine intimacy through the metaphor of travel. But this makes its conclusion a potent acknowledgement of the way poetry operates within the more universal domain of silence:

my hand on your heart / Your heart, unseen, working those hours in silence / silence, no need for a word. //

Rather than set up a language/silence schism, the poetic act finally assimilates itself to the silence, becoming one with it as it arrives at the poem’s tenderest image: an ambient iteration of the importance of ineffability in representing intimacy and poetic experience.

This kind of reconciliation between poetry and nonverbal ambience comes back to Campbell’s work across forms and her interest in travel, showing her to be a poet with a profound interest and willingness to explore poetry’s ephemeral materiality –– thematically, formally and as practice.


Text: Patrick Romero McCafferty

Image: Alice Hill-Woods

Published: 3/9/21


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