It has been five years since the publication of Beauty Sleep, Kate Camp’s last poetry collection. This period of silence has been deliberate. In an interview with Radio NZ National’s Lynn Freeman, Camp explained her absence from literary journals and readings as a means of avoiding inhibition—the literary equivalent of dancing as if no one were watching.
Why the need to begin writing as if no one were reading, especially having already written three well-received collections? At the Wellington Writers’ and Readers’ Festival two years ago, Christian Bok complained about confessional poetry that takes place in the poet’s kitchen or garden. Despite finding Bok rather irritating, Camp told Freeman, his remark influenced her to trying writing a different sort of poem—more expansive and universal.
The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (VUP, NZ$25) is indeed larger than Camp’s previous three collections, not simply because its impressive Sarah Maxey cover juts out from the book shelf an extra inch. Widely allusive, unapologetically obscure in places, and adopting multiple voices (a donor kidney, Moby Dick, a lovesick swan, Wittgenstein’s one-armed brother and a record-breaking hiccupper, for instance), it is an ambitious and successful collection. Ambitious because of the scale of its subject and reference; successful because of Camp’s characteristic wit and technical skill. The poems are frequently lively, the language taut. ‘Meatspace’, a sestina, is a good example of this vitality. Even the titles speak to each other. I have in mind the satisfying balance provided by ‘The house of miniature art’ on the page opposite ‘The totally artificial heart’.
The title poem, which stretches over the first thirteen pages of the book, is perhaps the most surprising. Based on Marguerite Porete’s controversial tract, which had her burnt at the stake in 1310, the poem’s italicised sections are Porete’s own words. Camp’s response to (or reflection of) Porete’s Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls is brief and esoteric. For example:
“How the Soul is delighted by the suffering of her neighbours
They live in the dark. They speak not in words but in sounds.”
After each peculiar conversation about the life of the annihilated Soul, the reader is left with most of a blank page; necessary space for digesting these unsettling, wry and aphoristic fragments. This is another sense in which the book is ambitious; it is unafraid to ask more of its reader. Camp uses as an epigraph a section from Porete’s book, which instructs those “annihilated by true love” to “listen carefully with the subtle understanding within you”. This imperative could apply to all readers of poetry, but is especially effective here, providing a challenge and promise. If you read with subtle understanding, you’ll reap the reward (wheat, incidentally, is a recurring image throughout the book). I don’t know if I achieved subtle understanding, but I did read this collection several times—particularly the first poem—and found more to enjoy on each reading.
The notion of a soul annihilated by true love colours every poem. Unlikely couples seem to appear on every second page: a swan falls in love with a pedal boat; a donor kidney and its recipient are in intimate dialogue; Moby Dick sets a few things straight with Ahab; even a field mouse calls passionately to an owl in ‘At the Coming of Summer’, the final poem in an excellent suite ordered by the seasons. And, in Camp’s appropriation of a South Chinese folk song, lovers are “in the mountain ranges of their bedding”.
True love that annihilates the soul is not merely between people (though there are poems which do allude to more conventional relationships) but between states, times, writers, divinities and things. Camp deftly zooms in and out on her subjects. In ‘Gambling lambs’, we find in the same stanza “minute cum traces, sticky traces of liquor/ reduced to constituent molecules” and the vastness of God. The paradox, “God I felt lonely when I realised you were everywhere”, expresses the sublime agoraphobia that comes with faith, a kind of annihilating love.
Camp’s modulation of perspective is mirrored by her changing tone. Solemn, pastoral and meditative lines mingle with puns, colloquialisms and glib obscenities. Sometimes this variation comes across as a bit crass (in ‘The tired atheist’, for instance), but, overall, it has the effect of specifying the universal, bringing down to earth the spiritual.
In her interview with Freeman, Camp said that, although she enjoyed reading poems with big, important subjects, and was keen to try write them herself, some of her favourite poems were still those that took place in the tiniest corner of the poet’s kitchen. In The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, Camp demonstrates that the domestic and personal need not (in fact, should not) be abandoned in favour of the universal, that weighty, “dark”, themes can be treated with a sense of humour. Like someone dancing in a room with no one watching, this collection has a weird energy and freedom, which is ultimately fun, a feat that shouldn’t be under-estimated.