Navigations, Nancy Campbell
HappenStance Press, 2020 £5.00
Poetry and waterways — how lovely! Navigations is about more than this though, it’s about life, finding one’s way, keeping one’s course.
I’m drawn to the poems that bring me close to the water (I had dreams of kayaking in a sheltered bay, but have left it a bit late). In ‘Costa da Morte’, I love the imagery that comes as a kayaker
gently pushes off — and becomes a water insect
going lickety-split up the cut, whirligig arms twirling
his battered paddle, blades scooping and sprinkling
as the bow waves rock from towpath to bank.
This is framed by a journey, another time and place, ‘on that unholy coast / in nightmare winds’.
I usually avoid shaped poems, but the long first line in ‘Safety Briefing’ pulls me in: ‘This slow current won’t capsize a kayak, but watch for the surge when the lock gates open’. A space in the shape of the front of a kayak cuts into the text and draws the eye to this:
Be alert. Correct any small slip
with a twist of your hips —
you’ll be surprised
just how far
you can tip
How I like the sound and look of all those ‘i’s, the way the poem lets me imagine that it’s me in the kayak from the start, and has me holding my breath at the imagined roll near the end.
Then there’s the lure of the river in ‘Michel’: ‘He has an apartment in the centre of the city but all he keeps / in it is a washing machine. Instead he sleeps down by the river / in a mobile home in which everything is very small.’ Thoughts of the river, a few lines down, bring an air of relaxation: ‘We go out often in boats. He / teaches me the name of the trees growing along the river, and / I forget them. He explains the names of each of the bridges, and / I remember them’.
There’s much more going on in this richly solid prose poem. It needs to be read whole.
The rhythm of travel
Travel isn’t just about arrival and the new places; it’s also the journey, with its rhythms and changes. Nancy Campbell was appointed UK’s Canal Laureate in 2018 and she has inside knowledge of kayaking — something I’ve only observed, a watcher on a bridge.
In ‘The short story of a long paddle on the Leeds and Liverpool canal’ she takes me down, level with the water, into her kayak and a different sense of time. Six days, a stanza for each day, counting them out: ‘On the first day…’, ‘On the second day …’ Water levels change, rain is an event; there is patient movement but no sound until the fifth stanza:
On the fifth day the radio reported
a hosepipe ban in the northwest:
there was drawdown from the reservoir
and more dry weather forecast. Boats waited
at the high locks, then passed through two abreast
exchanging news, and saving water.
The priorities on the canal and what counts as news are different. Boats and the ‘few cyclists’ in the sixth stanza are the only traffic; in a kayak it’s a solitary world.
Campbell travels on water in other ways but stays true to the way water holds the journey’s rhythm. In ‘Weidling’ she crosses the Rhine in Basel via one of its four cable-ferries, the Vogel Gryff. The carefully-modulated free verse matches the ferry’s movement against her own apprehension that ‘The world is breaking up.’ She’s asked in the first stanza:
Who couldn’t feel the lure of this great river?
Its soft colours, wild waves, salt smell—
and lined with lindens
and then admits the outside world with its news of ‘a tanker burning in the Gulf of Oman’, and the personal pain of missing ‘someone I ought not to miss’. Water is the constant, its familiar movement a comfort:
and so I cross a river there is no need to cross
not to reach the other bank, only to feel
water surge beneath the ferry boards.
On another journey Campbell walks a tow path with a friend undergoing chemotherapy. Navigations travels in many ways, all of them revealing.
D A Prince
Circular, Linear, Still
Your email’s important
but I am au courant
To be ‘au courant’ in a canoe is to be aware of the currents. It also connotes, though, being up to date with current affairs. Yet in ‘Autoresponse’ — a poem in the form of an automated out-of-office email reply — being ‘au courant’ is to be separate from the world.
In Navigations, Canal Laureate Nancy Campbell explores canals as places both of movement and stillness. The canal networks are at once linear routes, places of wildlife and life cycles, and places of stillness or liminality at the borders of contemporary society.
All three of these aspects are present in ‘The Short Story of a Long Paddle on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal’. Told in seven stanzas (each beginning ‘On the first day,’ ‘On the second day,’ etc) the poem has echoes of the Genesis creation story as the speaker makes steady progress along the canal during a heatwave. Simultaneously, this heatwave provides a sense of endings, a semi-apocalyptic stillness. The closing image of the ‘last, brittle hours’ of the ‘dragonflies’ references the insects’ short lifecycle, as well as casting a shadow over all those who live along the ‘dark and still’ canal.
‘In the Month of July’ describes a walk along a canal with a friend who has cancer. The canal is revealed as a site of industry, yet also a still place where the friends can talk. It describes a set of locks built by ‘Mr Samuel Oldknow,’ ‘a man of ambition / determined to drive the water uphill.’ The story of this industrialist contrasts with the ‘tender body’ of the speaker’s friend ‘which this short walk will tire.’
Other poems here use the pathetic fallacy to reflect the turbulence of the world at large and the ways in which waterways are both a part of that movement and distinct from it. ‘Incident’ is written in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, and sees the ‘water seethe’ with rain as the speaker hears the news on the radio. ‘The world feels very close’ and yet, in the intensity of the moment it captures, the poem seems to depict something liminal — a place both touched and untouched by current affairs.
‘Navigations’ paddles through the contradictions of human-made waterways. It is, among other things, a homage to canals and all that moves through them.