March 2019

Back to Issue 5

Third Body

By Marion May Campbell

Whitmore, 2018
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit

In third body, Marion May Campbell interrogates the porous boundaries between the self and the other, as well as the incongruous inconsistencies between the self and the self. Thus, in “incipient foredune” (71-89), “our devastating need / to kill the other in each other” is seen to be “murder of all desire” (83). As lovers, we so often want everything in the beloved that we are not, and yet we so often seek only to see ourselves in the other. The bonds that bind us together may become restrictive. In the opening poem, “passing” (3-12), the speaker asks: “what kind of history / & what kind of witness / is possible / when Inever coincides with me” (5)? If Iis the acting first person subject, then meis the first person object acted on: it is the difference between perpetrator and victim, saviour and saved, or leader and follower. Campbell negotiates such binaries with finesse, showing an astounding gift for figurative language.

One such binary opposition, the dichotomy of those with voice and those without is captured in “passing” when Campbell observes: “my mother spoke like a book/ as the French say // the speechless put up tents in her pauses” (6). This marvellous imagery reveals so much truth in its wit, wisdom, and weirdness: weirdas in both uncannyand connected with fate. The speaker observes of her mother, who returns in spectral form, that “she always wore an outer / garment of strict design / as if to keep her wild spirits in” (8). She recollects that “those permanent pleats like cage-bars / she longed to break out of / in the end” (8). Here, the strictures of femininity both withhold and holdout, so that “her dreams” become “crossroads / where the outlaws hang / breaking from detention / like rogue apostrophes” (12). Boundaries are broken. There is a sense of Prometheus Unbound here, as the speaker’s mother, a seemingly-ordinary teacher and stickler of a grammarian, is subject to mythic trials and forced into undertaking legendary journeys across “the Great Australian Bight” (5). In this way, bathos colours these poems with a warm sense of humour, and the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

These poems, then, are a celebration of the quotidian. In “neoclassical” (24-25), the only magic to be found is in the mundane, when “you waved your mascara wand at my reflected skin” (25). Love – human and humane – is what redeems the commonplace and the banal. There is no room for the deific. Indeed, “if not in paint” (31-42) tells us in urgent italics that “the gods have gone/ attend to what is given you” (41). The ordeals we must undergo may be Sisyphean at times but the gods will not help us: in Campbell’s world we are indeed forsaken but not by our fellow humans. There is still love, and we must cease to look to the stars for divine intervention and instead look to our loved ones. In “inside the fold” (62-67) mortality is present, insistent, in scans, diagnoses, prognoses, and “palliative care” (62). The speaker must face her fear that her lover will die soon: “were there to be an after-you / unthinkable real” (62). Time bends to the beloved – there are only two eras, the epoch of youand the potentiality of after-you.

The poem I mentioned at the start of this review, “incipient foredune” (71-89), is perhaps the finest piece in this collection along with the exuberant effervescent section of “bestiary of virtual correspondents” (43-67) entitled “prayer to Thunraza, goddess of the storm” (52-53) which fizzes with static and the sheer joy of word play and rhythm. In “incipient foredune,” the poet postulates that “reading half-erases every text” (77), and “through love we need to find the tune / of our erasure each-to-each” (76). Erasure of the self is a difficult but necessary step on the path to enlightenment in Ignatian or Pauline Christianity, in Zen Buddhism, and in other faiths. In Campbell’s seemingly-secular world, however, this impetus towards erasure is found in the act of love and the motion of speaking or scribing.

Put simply, this is sustaining poetry that should leave the reader with a sense of warmth and happiness. No, this poetry is not akin to the simple platitudes of Rupi Kaur, nor is it smug or complacent with regards to the status quo. But neither is it angry or vehement, melancholic or mournful. Instead, this is poetry that rewards work – both the writer’s and the reader’s – and speaks of that simple, elusive thing: love. Campbell is long-established as a novelist of merit; in third body, she shows an agility of expression and a keenness of insight that together prove she ranks high among the urgent voices of poetry in Australia today.