Elizabeth Campbell: Letters to the Tremulous Hand

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 68pp.

I have been looking forward to this book of Elizabeth Campbell’s ever since I met two of her Tremulous Hand poems in Anthony Lawrence’s The Best Australian Poetry 2004. The poems were interesting mainly because they were quite different from what one expects from the sort of poetic biography that Australian poetry is, at the moment, full of. But at the time, the subject was even more interesting: an unnamed monk who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century acted as a copyist in Worcester, despite a tremor in his writing hand. It is always exciting when a poem can introduce us to an unknown historical reality and I was fascinated by this figure: someone old enough to remember the Old English which was in the process of being replaced by the new, half-romance idiom of Middle English. He caught my imagination as being analogous to the great Icelandic historian, chieftain and thug: Snorri Sturluson. The two were, most likely, coevals though Snorri was, perhaps, rather the older of the two. The Tremulous Hand, as part of his activities, compiled a word list of Old English, the language of Aelfric and Wulfstan as well as a host of other celebrated medieval scholars.

Snorri’s fate was to see not the decline of his language (Icelandic robustly resisted all incursions and the language of Snorri can be read with ease by Icelanders today) but the loss of his poetic culture. This occurred because of the freak mischance that the complex metaphoric language of Old Norse poetry was derived from Norse myth. When the church arrived at the end of the first millennium (just before William the Bastard arrived in England bringing French with him) the myths went. And when the myths went, the poetry became incomprehensible. Snorri fought against this by compiling a collection of prose retellings of these myths (the Snorraedda) which was designed to act (surprisingly for most first-time readers) as a poetic primer. It is irresistible to think of the Tremulous Hand, at almost the same time and in a much humbler way, compiling a glossary of a beloved language now passing out of existence. I imagined the pair of them, one in a scriptorium the other on his estates, at pretty much the same time and in neighboring countries, each fighting for a past which was sliding into oblivion.

Regrettably this is a moving but inaccurate view of the situation of the Tremulous Hand. The major text which Campbell has used, Franzen’s The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, debunks most of the romanticized elements in favour of bleaker truths. The tremor is most likely congenital rather than being the grief-laden response of an old man desperately trying to record the past, etc etc. And, to do her justice, there is nothing in Campbell’s poetry that desires or needs a romanticized view. Her ten-poem sequence, devoted to the scribe, is at the farthest possible remove from the conventional poetic recreation of a life. The Tremulous Hand sequence is really a kind of meta-poetic-biography. What Campbell is interested in is, among other things (this is a very complex sequence), the morality of writing about historical figures. She is also interested in the nature of personality, history, scholarship, writing, the act of transmission, where love comes into all of this and even the nature of our existence trapped between past and future.

The fourth, six and ninth poems seem to focus on conceptions of self inside the process of history. These are all impressive meditations, especially the ninth, “ansyn/face”, which focuses specifically on the question, “What do we do / when we take another’s words and say them / again in a different hand?” This makes a neat connection between the act of scribal transcription and the biographical poet’s search for a suitable subject. In the middle section the poem continues to address artists. Syntactical difficulties in the first sentence (of the fourth stanza) make the exact authorial position tricky to determine but it seems deliberately to reject the postmodern position that there is no transcendent ground by which to judge knowledge and imagines a last judgement where all would be known and “salvation // would be endless recognition”. The final section of the poem is complex and moving:

My face is my end

though it changes: as never-same
as the river of speech that can’t talk
backwards down the arrow though they quote
or spade us up on the last day.
What saint’s face did they uncowl,
that came for you?

You wrote: Sanctus Bedus was iboren:
here that scholar is, poling you over the river
here you: a glimmer
behind my shoulder, a pocket compact:
long chosen, the helmsman
lifts your hood, bears my face.

We carry those who transmit us: so Bede ferries the Tremulous Hand and the Tremulous Hand ferries the author (at least that is what I take the reference to the glimmer behind the shoulder to mean). But this is complicated by the last two lines which contain a number of disorienting puns and ambiguities: who lifts whose hood and bears/bares the author’s face? A complicated and fascinating poem.

Campbell herself tells us that she came across her subject through an interest in dialogues between the body and the soul and this issue percolates through the poems. One poem, based on the extraordinary opening of Heloise’s first letter to Abelard, concludes by positioning the poet respectfully:

To the minor scholar, the minor poet
to the body, the soul:
to the dead, the living.

In the second poem of the sequence, she asks the Tremulous Hand to teach her the difference between “divine truth and cramping” that is: between the soul (and its transcendent co-ordinates) and the immediate demands of the body. This poem opens out into an issue of epistemology. The poet declares herself “suspicious of anything / that could be called expansive” and “suspicious of anything reductive”. She is suspicious of the former because even the soul has to have a precise location and of the latter because the things that experience is reduced to (such as sex) turn out themselves to be strange and complex. Removing expansion and reduction however “clearly flattens // like the blotting-out of sin – like the Earth / I am on not in”. This epistemological quandary is only a small part of the complexities of the Tremulous Hand sequence but the fact that it is important for the poet is stressed by the poem that opens the entire book, ”˜Proverb”.

Here the expansion/reduction binary is expressed in more philosophically conventional terms as the battle between generalization and datum. Does the truth lie in the facts or in our understanding of the facts? “Who could love detail for its own sake?” the poem asks, “Surely a gentle mind turns straight / away to symbol?” Although successive readings have left me a little more nervous in the face of this poem than I was at first reading, there is not much doubt that here the author comes down clearly on the “data” side of the binary:

But Mother Doubt, you early laid on me

your threefold cradle-gifts:
sadness, restlessness,
and foremost of these, a hopeless

passion of reality.

The “Letters to the Tremulous Hand” sequence sends its thematic feelers out to other poems in the book, as well. The dialogue of the body and soul, for example, re-emerges in an earlier poem, “Gravity”, which begins by expecting all the usual jealousies between the two but concludes: “Our bodies fly us like a kite”. “The Song’s Bride” built of the “Song of Songs” and Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins also is probably a body/soul poem.

“Fetch” is a complicated poem recounting a friend’s near-death experience in an upturned canoe. It is about facing death (“facing” has, of course, a double meaning in this book) and about incarnation and invocation (“fetch” is the key word) in a way that recalls the ninth poem of the later sequence. It also, incidentally, recalls the river image at the end of that poem and, like the second poem of the sequence has a lovely invocation:

Nick, old friend and
                  one of the few
who can inhale water and breathe out
                                   love, love ”“
go back for me, still my lungs, smell my hair.
Fetch me up and tell me I will live.

A four-part sequence, “Passengers”, is marked by a strong sense of our movement between birth and death or between the past and the future. The book itself has two epigraphs: one from Jennifer Harrison about the past (it asks “is memory the soul?’) and a crucial one from de Beauvoir, “the future has no face.” The third poem of this sequence is a little story about a pair of clowns waiting with the author at Athens airport and entertaining some children to pass the time. The book’s obsession with the relationship between ourselves and our faces clicks into focus here. The clown persona is a kind face without a history: it is what our faces might be like if their function were only to render expression rather than our pasts:

Without a mask
he becomes a mask
. . . . .
Rummaging his bag for the hidden he is
Search, leaping up plain
as Hope at each annunciation
of flight or passenger, lips fished in an “oo”
of “Surprise”, or else he’s Rage chewing “shuttup”

silently and shaking a fist
his every impulse even anger kind in its equality.
. . . . .
His mask completes him, whose repertoire
does not include: grief, guilt, memory:
without a past. The children watching are more
tangled; tired and amazed, yawning to believe
his promise, that they will be
reborn to a parentless face.

Finally there is a kind of unofficial sequence about what is clearly another obsession (though one which, for obvious reasons, does not make it into the poems to the Tremulous Hand) – horses. Even here, though, familiar themes arise. “Equus” and “Forget” revolve around a horse whose foal has died and thus explore the nature of grief, consciousness and memory. Throughout these poems you can feel the body/soul binary pushing for recognition. “Horse” deals with the pure responses of the body to stimuli and takes this into surprising areas:

. . . . .
                         Stripped
of motive
made the
        pure reaction
of a massive self all action is
messianic. A body that saves nothing, but stops and turns and starts.

That word “messianic” pulls you up short and makes you nervous about your reading of the poem. Finally, in “Longitude”, the poet stands at the still centre while the horse, on a long rope, paces out a circle. The horse, we are told, is oriented horizontally “her spine // long into landscape like a ridgeline: / forwards like time” while the author is vertical. It is, like so many of the poems in this book, difficult and intriguing. The binary begs to be particularized: the horse is the body, the person the soul. But it could be read in other ways.

Letters to the Tremulous Hand is a pretty exhilarating first collection by someone who is more than a “minor poet”. There are very complex poems sharing similar thematic material but never to the point where one poem acts as a touchstone to explain the rest. Here, what we get instead is a series of different reflections on these themes. The poems are very difficult, especially for an innocent reader who has nothing but the text to work with, but it’s the kind of difficulty that is not gratuitous. You feel that the poet has our interests at heart but also has a very complex view of life to share. This is the second John Leonard Press book I have reviewed on this site and I really need to say that the production standards, especially the printing, are absolutely outstanding. All of these books are, physically, a pleasure to read.