Navigations, Nancy Campbell
HappenStance Press, 2020 £5.00
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.