Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I like to write a little about poetry collections I've really enjoyed reading because I want to share my pleasure with you poetry people out there but also because writing about the poems makes me think more deeply about them and most of the time I uncover many further treasures I wasn't aware of on a leisurely read. It also makes me think about collections as a whole and the themes or the 'arc' of a collection.

Camper Van Blues

The final collection I've recently sunk my teeth into is Jane Holland's Camper Van Blues. This book is what I call value for money; it is split into three parts and each part is like a mini-collection in and of itself. Part one is a sequence of twenty-seven poems which gives rise to the title of the book. Part two is Holland's modern translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem called 'The Lament of the Wanderer' and part three consists of a further thirty-three poems.

I've been reading Jane's poetry for a while now. I came across her blog quite randomly a couple of years ago and I blogged about her last poetry collection Boudicca & Co here.

The first thing I notice about Jane's work is that she is superb at sequences. The excellent sequence of poems that make up the 'Boudicca' section of her last book wasn't a one off.
The poems in the first part of Camper Van Blues couldn't be more different in subject matter from the Boudicca poems. The blurb on the sleeve says "The title sequence is a British road movie told through poems, one woman and her dog alone in a camper van".
The first poem, 'Day Tripping', sets the tone of the sequence with "Wasted again, I'm slumped / over a fold-up table". It's this kind of informal, talky tone that takes the reader through the sequence revealing, at times, the gritty details of life on the road for a single woman.
The first two poems reveal the impetus for life on the road. In 'Day Tripping' the reader is informed that the narrator is:

"...three months now
unable to pray, or pay rent
or put pen to paper.

Slumped, unseen
behind the stained blind
of a flyscreen"

The second poem, 'Troika', narrates a betrayal of love where the narrator in her camper van watches as the man, to whom the poem is addressed, enters into his house with another woman where "Moments later, light streams / from an upstairs window". This warm, homely image is then contrasted with the image of the narrator:

"The wind's only a thin hiss
across darkening fields
but my camper rocks gently,
ringing its tiny bells"

The wind and the bells here really heighten the sense of loneliness, the contrast of the lovers in the warm, bright bedroom with that of the woman alone at dusk in a camper van which rocks only with the wind. The use of language in the last verse of this poem demonstrates what I really love about Jane's work so I'm going to quote it in full:

"Outside is like the last dark,
familiar as the first hurt.
I'm used to its velvet lagoons
and swim of wet tarmac,
its absence of love,
my road ahead the white trick
of a travelling moon."

I love the many layers of sound repetition - like/dark/hurt/tarmac/trick and first/used, lagoon/swim/moon. The slow pleasure in sounding out 'velvet lagoon' and 'swim of wet tarmac' where the hurt and loss is made all the more poignant because of the use of sensual language. The unusual word usage in the imagery of "the white trick / of the travelling moon". All these factors work together to create an emotional impact in which the poem becomes as much the reader's experience as the narrator's.

There are so many lovely bits to pick out from these poems. Some of my favorites are: "Cornish rain understands loss" ('Tintagel in November', "...lost in the thimblerig / that is England" ('Wend'). From 'Truck Stop:

"...for those
wraithlike countries of the night
where you can dream yourself awake
and the radio speaks to no one
because it's broken".

And from 'Metamorphosis':

"I hawk stile and scree

to the river-bank...

...Fresh channels have
cut cords here

through pitched grass,

sweat-strings of water, sun-

As you can gather, these are hugely visual poems however they are also packed with the nitty gritty details of daily life which make the poems real. 'Recharging the Battery' begins with:

"I bring out the ancient generator. Dense, compact,
oily to the touch, it rests on the tarmac:
a thin coil of wire, steel clips, Golden Virginia beside it."

In 'Dover Cliff': "Haddock and chips, 3a.m. / Smoke a thin roll-up". In 'Flash Bang' the narrator describes her camper van as a "travelling show" packed with "broken clocks / and souvenir postcards...bottom drawers / groaning with porn; forged notes".

I could really go on about these poems but I better say a quick word about the rest of the book. The translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem The 'Lament of the Wanderer' demonstrates Jane's wide range of capability and interests. It is very much a modern take on an ancient poem where Jane even changes the narrator's gender to female! It is beautifully translated and has interested me enough that I'd like to get around to at some point reading a more traditional translation to compare it with. Here's the first few lines as a taster:

"Far out, a solitary drifter falters; falls
to her knees, feels one arm plunge
up to the elbow in water, left numb
by frozen wastes and endless ice."

The last section of poems are of a wide variety, some returning to themes of English mythology prominant in her earlier collection such as in 'The Man who Became a Tree':

"He lay down at midsummer
and woke up green,

his legs rough bark,
branches where his arms had been."

There are also some very startling poems also such as 'Love like Forensics':

"You stooped to push aside the white
mud-stained flap
of the forensic tent of my heart"

You can read more about and purchase a copy of Camper Van Blues here.


Roxana said...

I am so glad you introduce all these poets to us, sorlil! some stunning lines here too... Thank you!

Sorlil said...

thanks roxana!

deemikay said...

Thanks for this. I've never read anything by her.

I'm quite interested in The Wanderer. I love modern takes on Anglo Saxon poems. (And I'm reminded of something I wrote months and months ago about the fate of some anglo-saxon poems... we're lucky to have what we have.)

One translation of The Wanderer I have begins:

Often the wanderer pleads for pity
and mercy from the Lord but for a long time,
sad in mind, he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea;
he must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible.

It's nice to play with the words in modern English. :)

Sorlil said...

thanks for that deemikay, it's fun to compare and I enjoyed the poems at your link!

Jane Holland said...

Sorry not to have come and read this before today; Christmas shopping and a late essay have taken their toll on my time management skills. But better late than never, and many thanks indeed for this comprehensive coverage of Camper Van Blues. I'm extremely pleased that you enjoyed the book so much and hope your enthusiasm encourages others to read it too.

Re the last stanza of TROIKA which you quote in full here, it was, interestingly, a very late addition to the poem, which I originally wrote in late 2000, recalling - alas! - a real-life incident. The poem languished unpublished for seven years, until I revised it for a 2007 competition (which I won) simply by adding that last stanza. Odd how things can shift so swiftly for a poem that's been stuck for years, sometimes over the course of a few minutes. You look at the flawed poem and the solution comes to you, BAM!, like that.

Well, many thanks again, and I'll blog this up right now on Raw Light. Have a great Christmas!


Sorlil said...

hi jane, I really enjoyed the book - so much to digest, I'll be doing a lot of going back to and mulling over.

Interesting what you say about your Troika poem. I was discussing those lines in the comments on jim's blog (, only then did I realise the full poem was available on-line as a prize-winner!

Rob said...

Good review. I found Jane's book in Waterstones and read some of it. Definitely something I plan to read. I'll buy a copy in 2009.

Sorlil said...

thanks rob, I didn't even get around to mentioning what a gorgeous cover it has! I'm looking forward to your book coming out next year also.