Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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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.

Isabelle Thompson