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Steve Spence

“In the Gemini Café” by Neil Campbell, pub. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.   73 pages   £10.00

Neil Campbell is another ‘new name’ to me, one of a number coming out from KFP, a poetry publisher which is rapidly becoming an indispensable set-up on the scene. These books look good now as well, with neatly designed covers, mixing house style with plenty of room for individual creativity. The cover art in this particular case features ‘ The Gemini Café’ a place where according to the poem at the end of the collection ‘..the air you breathe / comes at break time’.

These poems are set in the north of England, in Scotland and occasionally in the USA and deal primarily in the relationship between work and escape from work, finding those moments outside the daily grind where art and nature combine to produce  minor, secular epiphanies, a mix of fighting back, letting go and discovering what beauty there is in the world, at odds with ‘the / boring fucking jobs I’d never / believe in, / those tombs of commerce, catacombs of delusion, filled / with shopping bags to last / a lifetime’. (from ‘Poem After One Bottle Of Orchard Cider, 95p from Aldi’).
Campbell’s literary heroes are Bukowski, Kerouac and Steinbeck though he largely avoids the obsessive addiction to the former which has marred many a young poet’s development when searching for a model to emulate or be inspired by: ‘Looking back, I realize / that there is no more to this writing / than a solitary notebook, cheap pens / and the avoidance of work.’ (from ‘Bookmark’).

          Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge

          High above the trains, with his golden gleaming sax, the jazzman
          flies beyond all the hotshot commuters, and the two-time losers,
          the  bruisers.  He plays  beyond  his  brain, the  notes  sailing  out
          across  the  river, the  bright  blazing  river.  New York City let him
          be. Let  him play to  the sky, the  boats  and the trains.  Keep your
          commerce  and  your  wars. Your  wars  will go on. You  will  never
          listen,  but  someone  might,  some  little  kid  not  yet  conned  by
          guns and money.

I can remember seeing the documentary from which I think this piece derives and its mix of romantic defiance and lyrical beauty (both the above and the documentary) is at the heart of Campbell’s writing, where the city and/or the great outdoors becomes a place where conflict is both generated and resolved, at least temporarily in the psyche of the individual. There’s a slight overlap here with the work of Martin Hayes, for example, where the focus is more intensely on work and its pressures and ability to ‘grind you down’ but whereas Hayes comes closer to some kind of political analysis as a possible response, Campbell’s poetry while hardly naïve in its documentation is more existential.

           Birdsongs

          The sunset has
          painted a Rothko

          on my wall.
          I turn to see

          the setting sun.
          It is coming across

          the sea like
          a trail of birds.

          Blackbird evening;
           blackbird, sunlit-

          singing evening.
          Can I not

          just sit and listen,
          sit and watch?

          This orange evening
          of birdsongs

          is so marvellously
          absent of politics.

 

This relationship between art and nature and the desire for a world that is not dominated by the political and the economic is neatly encapsulated in this poem which is at once an argument and an endorsement of a world view (the book is prefaced by a quotation from late American poet Philip Levine, a great documentarist of working class life) while also being a beautiful, minimalist lyric poem in its own right. It’s a poem which is much more sophisticated than it might at first appear. Yet if there is a hint of Thoreau in Campbell’s ‘escapist fantasy’ it’s a Walden also aware of the realities of the working world in a modern consumerist society, however alienated and at odds with that society the individual appears to be.

In ‘Turning up the Volume’ we have the first of a short series of prose poems which mix what appear to be nostalgic memories with fractured dream sequences which have a stream of consciousness feel which heightens to a sense of ‘super-reality’. It’s this contrast between the humdrum workday existence with its pressures and anxieties and a more surreally oriented outlook on the world that makes this such an interesting collection and one that the reader may well want to dip into again: ‘With the memory of her music painting the / walls like the sun paints the old buildings of broken towns, he / lifted his sodden face back and listened as the glorious fragments / of his bolted life consoled him with arias and tone poems’. Compare this to a brief description of an evening working at the postal centre which evokes precisely the mixture of drudgery, coercion, panic, relief and near euphoria which makes up the 5pm – 10.15pm shift. Anyone who has ever been in this position, on minimum wage and zero hour contract will be in tune with the sentiments expressed in this poem. Campbell’s language here really gets into the feel of the environment, the desperation of the individual and the final triumph at the end of shift, a small victory of resistance and a temporary feeling of freedom.

          The Last Post

          About nine bells all the men
          started wheeling the post out on stage
          as fast as they could manage.
          For once I felt like working hard
          so I pushed more, walked quicker
          saw the pleasure in the manager’s eyes
          as I kept on pushing, pulling
          sweating and grafting
          knowing that come 10.15 pm
          I would be walking out
          onto the cool of Oldham Road
          and never, ever coming back. 

 

There’s a wider range of writing in  this collection, both in formal terms and in subject matter, than I’ve probably indicated but its core subject remains the relationship between ‘work’ and ‘free time’, between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ and between the power of dreams to resist the models and life choices that are imposed by arbitrary questions of birth and class. If this is poetry as therapy or consolation it also perhaps holds out the hope of a more noble and ‘transcendental’ reply to ‘the way things are’ even if this late romantic thesis is one beset by contradiction.

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018