Elizabeth Campbell: Error

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 60pp.

Error is Elizabeth Campbell’s second book and has at least this much in common with her first, the excellent Letter to the Tremulous Hand (2008), that each concludes with an extended set of poems devoted to a medieval mystery. In the first book, a ten poem sequence explores a host of issues – including poetic personality, the matter of copying, the act of entering imaginatively into the life of an historical personage – revolving around a medieval scribe/copyist who has escaped the customary anonymity because his handwriting is marked by a distinctive tremor. This new book, Error, concludes with a fifteen poem sequence devoted to the famous sequence of late fifteenth century tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn. As with the former sequence there is a two-page introduction to establish the context. The sequence (which may, irritatingly, not be complete or in the correct order) is usually seen as being made up of five tapestries devoted to each of the senses and a final one in which the Lady at the centre of each prepares to enter a tent on which is written A Mon Seul Desir (most likely to be taken to mean “to my sole desire”). The sequence is most commonly interpreted to represent the lady’s gradual abandonment of the sensual world for the world of her true desire: philosophical and religious meditation. But it is an interpretation which is highly conjectural, doesn’t seem to fit with anything known of its noveaux-riche sponsors, and, by managing to get the individual tapestries titled after the relevant sense and order them the way it has, it supports itself in a circular way. At any rate, Campbell says, pointedly, at the end of her introduction: “I suspect all of this is more complex”.

Campbell’s sequence sees the tapestries as being about love – a complex phenomenon in any culture and at any time, but particularly elusive in the high medieval heraldic-allegorical tradition. And so she writes a poetic sequence about the different features of love, slotting in personal experience where it fits. The first poem, “Canso: toucher”, demonstrates this, but also the way in which “true” or “high” or “courtly” love is very much about identity and the way it is not only submerged in the loved-one but also reflected from the loved one:

I step off the round blue island
into the red sea and break a leg.
So you tend me

and I watch your face for clues
to what you stare into
so tenderly binding my leg:

what is this person

who loves you?

The Romance of the Rose of Guillame de Lorris, though two and a half centuries older than these tapestries, is probably the key text to these complicated issues of identity, but there is also the second act of Wagner’s Tristan (based on Gottfried’s poem which is more or less contemporaneous with the Romance), especially in the wonderful La Scala production where Waltraud Meier earnestly puzzles over words like “you, only, I, we, two” (to quote Campbell’s second poem) during the second act. “Love”, the final poem (in which the lady grows into a unicorn) says, is “holy envy”, though the servant who holds the case for the lady’s jewels tells her:

love itself is allegory – its fever
and its lion all costumes
of the mythic unicorn: a secret tithe.

These few glossed quotations will give some sense of what a difficult poem it is, and the difficulty of its central allegorical work of art is multiplied by the sequence’s freedom to mix personal experience in with it. But, ultimately, this is not simply an interpretive sequence and it is all the more interesting for that reason. Perhaps its final position is that love desires to become love and searches in the loved-one not for another self but for love. The lady’s tent is her inner self and, as the second poem says:

Myth we reject

turns inward – the selfless lover
loves no self in his other, loves only love, ends
folding on himself, ceremonial:

love’s mind loves
its own luminous terminology . . .

This technique of inhabiting existing myths isn’t reserved for the longer sequences. You can see it in “Ithaka”, one of the best poems in the book. The poem begins with Cavafy’s poem as though it were the embarkation point for its own mysterious voyage. Its first shift is to introduce the poet’s own situation – awake and mildly paranoid in a house not her own:

Lying alone unsleeping in this good house
that is not mine, the bright day gone to teeming night,
the thought-bark ground ashore again
. . . . .
                                        I lie awake and wait
for the batter at the door – sit up each time and look
as headlights crunch through trees,
three in two hours . . .

And then modulate into a fascinating study of poetic completeness, entirely logical given Cavafy’s theme in “Ithaka”, but unexpected nevertheless:

Sleep the safe journey, Ithaka arrival, waking.
An old, a respectable trick, I’ve done it,
this making a perfectly ended poem
that tells the reader “don’t waste
your time on endings”:

art as round and finished as the lives of the dead,
to celebrate the virtue of life’s unfinish.
. . . . .

I don’t know how critical Campbell wants to be of Cavafy (rather than herself at the moment when she catches herself “painting fakes”) but there is an inbuilt contradiction between the polish of Cavafy’s poems (not to mention their long gestation and delayed publication) and the theme that it is process not completion that matters. But I emphasise this to give an example of the distinctive way in which Campbell can make other fictions and myths her own: she neither yields to the story nor ruthlessly appropriates it, but makes a new story that seems to oscillate between the original and the private.

What might be called the “Ithaka principle” emerges at different places in other poems. A fine poem, “New Year’s”, describes the poet with two friends swimming before the “year’s turning” and meditating on what happiness is, whether it is something we find ourselves momentarily immersed in or whether it comes from a structured “good life” which is, however, built according to various templates,

. . . . .
one light among those that dot-to-dot
the improbable wilful constellation called
The Good Life, that is traced on other star-maps
as The Balance, The Empty Ship, The Maze
. . . . .

and an earlier poem, “Fireworks”, describes various people for whom the dream doubles as the fulfilment before, in a way that is very similar to “New Year’s”, describing three schoolgirls at an end of school fete towards the end of the millennium, walking at the edge of the oval where the fireworks (in a metaphor that anyone would recognise) are being prepared:

. . . . .
                    Three girls, sick on sweets

and their own secret metaphor – fireworks -
for the cuspy feeling that could be
hope or fear; the violent promises

beneath their words – "I will be" -: already
embarrassed by their own self-conscious ardour.
In the end they went home

before the first fuse, saw nothing.
The need was the feast, the promise itself the event.

There are many poems in Error which focus on process rather than abstraction and the chief interest of the small section devoted to Dante seems largely to revolve around the way in which, in Inferno, the souls are permanent, eternal expressions of their sins. Count Ugolino becomes:

                                             The damned dead by hunger
gnawing at the nape of the damned tormentor.

Stuck forever in the ice, in the pattern
of its own act like an Escher staircase
stubbornly moving going

nowhere. Back to yourself is nowhere.

And, in a way that now seems familiar, Campbell moves on to think about Dante himself and his poem. As the sinners are their sin so Dante is his poem and allegory is not a way of saying something in disguise but of inhabiting two worlds at the same time. This bleak little sequence ends in a warm poem about process in the form of lived life, asking, in its last line not the, “speak to me of the living” that we might expect but rather the Dantesque, “speak of me to the living”. Another poem, “Dalkey Island”, uses terns diving as a metaphor for thinking and points out that just as terns do not actively “dive”, rather they surrender to the passive force of gravity, so

Perhaps all your insights are this obvious -
modest freefalls out of doubt
when the mind stops beating and the head bows

out of the abstraction of the air . . . . .

The first sections of the book are called, respectively, “Error” and “Fear”. “Fear” contains two extraordinary poems, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” the first of which recounts its author’s accumulated bodily damage and the second the experience of epilepsy. They belong to what looks like a little anatomy of fear, the central image for which is the idea of a room. The first poems are, similarly, grouped around errors. The opening poem is a wonderful recounting of the experience of involuntarily crying out at the remembrance of childhood cruelty. For this poet it happens in the shower whose waters then become an image of the passage of time “your hands explore what years have done // to the self that did that thing”. At least one of these childhood “errors” is an insensitivity to her mother’s recounting of her own past (and thus the author’s genetic history) contrasted with her own true poet’s sense of autogenesis:

. . . . .
                    I circled her
in disgust with her hopeless dead: absorbed

in the myth of my self-birth:
goddess of wisdom, learning, war – sprung
whole from my father’s head!

Letters to the Tremulous Hand and Error establish Elizabeth Campbell as, consistently, one of the best of Australia’s new poets. It remains to be seen whether the structure they adopt – especially that part which engages with a medieval (or other) problem with such an intriguing deployment of the self – is used again. There is an argument (which I’m not entirely committed to) that extended sequences of this sort smell too much of University postgraduate writing courses where they have the right blend of required imaginative research producing a nicely extended (and thus examinable) text. We are such a long way beyond that in the poems of the major sequences of these books that it shouldn’t be an issue, but then no poet can go around inhabiting an endless set of historical/artistic issues like the Tapestries or the handwriting of the “tremulous” hand. Campbell has shown that she can make her own successful choices in these first two books and so there is no reason to doubt that she won’t make the right decisions in the future books that readers of Australian poetry will be happily anticipating.