Peter Campbell's first poetry collection, published by Hearing Eye, is reviewed by Joe Bidder
This is Peter Campbell's first collection but the poems may be familiar since some have been widely published, performed and broadcast during the past 20 years. Around half of the poems are rooted in mental health and survivor issues and exhibit Campbell's unique perception, wit, radical stance, compassion and love for rhythm and landscape.
A recent All in the Mind programme on BBC Radio 4 (25 April 2006) began with Campbell's poem, Decisions, describing a diagnostic interview and illustrating the power balance in patient-doctor relationships.
I tell him I am Zeop the Centurion.
He writes it down in my case notes.
In the green room he plays with paper clips,
Talks to the girl from the Migraine Unit,
Decides he will sleep on it.
Next morning the staff team convenes.
Porcelain cups for psychiatrists,
Plastic for everyone else.
Decisions have to be reached.
I sit in a straight-backed chair.
‘We don't think that you are Zeop the Centurion’ he says.
‘I know that’ I say. ‘Why else do you think I'm in here?’
Born in Scotland, Campbell has written several poems drawing inspiration from his homeland where he evinces his love for landscape, though tinged with personal shadowing: as in Drainage: ‘They dug a leat through Blackhill Moss / Turves bend and seep / The haunches of the mountain lie at dusk / More vividly by such a tutored cut.’ and also in Dark Water, which begins ‘The water in the lade is dark as vinegar / …’ followed by ‘The water is dark over the weir / Sheep's wool hanks cling to the wire / Spread on the table / Like old men's hair / …’
An adult life spent periodically inside the now virtually extinct mental asylums has provided a rich seam of images and emotions for Campbell to draw on. He sees the asylum as a country house landscape; a haven from pressure but also a place of enormous power for psychiatrists who were able to (and frequently did) abuse their privileged positions. The poetry contains an exquisite ambivalence, as in Inside the Garden, which starts:
In a Surrey asylum garden
there are peonies, large and showy.
There is Quercus robur shading the hollows.
Butterflies, colours founded in Eden.
But there are no smiling natives.
The poem continues further on:
A green and pleasant fourteen acre wood.
A cricket pitch
With magpies feeding and a clubhouse
For the membership.
A little England
For ruling of the mad.
An exhibition for the sane and unbelieving …
Inside another asylum, in Napsbury, Hertfordshire, the poet spends a long dark night listening to the passing trains and thinking of First World War casualties (echoes of Siegfried Sassoon) who were shipped in by the trainload on a specially built spur-line (preceding Auschwitz and Treblinka), often staying a lifetime in the mental health system. Night and Morning describes a shameful episode in 20th century British civilisation:
Turn towards the cold partition,
Turn away from their touch.
They've left those fields and joined a greater war.
Their names are scratched within the linen store.
The clothes you cadge are still the clothes they wore.
Mental health experiences apart, trains and railways mean a lot to Campbell, who lives in London with a view of his local station, which features in a memorable poem, Fourth Station, with its urgent locomotive rhythm and singing urban landscape. It begins:
Cricklewood station, Cricklewood station,
I wait for the five o'clock
It's down to King's Cross
For a conversation
With a man in a bookshop
Creased with perspiration.
I've never seen the colours over west so hard,
Like ripples of blackcurrant on a faded postcard.
No coronas on the floodlights in the marshalling yard,
It's the kind of night God must have used
For passing on the word.
In recent years Campbell has become progressively deaf and there is one poem, Hearing Impairment, that expresses the experience specific to a hearing impairment beginning in middle-age. It begins:
He cannot hear doves.
Sound has lost its sweetness.
In church the music crumbles,
Curdling the senses.
His ears are filled with plastic.
A tube runs up to each rim.
He wears his hair long in all seasons,
Sits at the table with his back to the light.
One hopes that Campbell will continue to write about deafness, perhaps giving forceful artistic expression to the isolation and discrimination he has experienced.
There is tenderness and compassion, too, in Campbell's poetry for homeless people in Not to Die; for a dead survivor, P J Fahy, in Never Really Knew Him, and in the two love poems which close the collection. I particularly admire The Pain of Love with its opening lines:
The pain of love is terrible
Coasters slip unseen
Before the hoot of dawn.
This is a book you must buy and a poet who should be seen and heard in performance.
Brown Linoleum Green Lawns is published by Hearing Eye
Also read Joe Bidder's profile of Peter Campbell in the interviews section