Shadows and Light – review of Julia Copus, Rebecca Goss and Niall Campbell

The Poetry Review, summer 2019

It’s apt that Julia Copus who invented the ‘specular’ poem – where the second stanza of a poem reverses the lines of the first becoming a mirror image – should spot something compellingly reflective of her concerns in the life and work of Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist best known for his theory of the mirror stage of child development. Lacan’s reputation rests on a 1931 case study of one Marguerite Pantaine, a thirty-eight-year-old postal worker who had attempted to murder an actress with a knife. The heart of Copus’ assured fourth collection, Girlhood, is a reimagining of the encounter between analyst and analysand.

Copus’s sequence, ‘MARGUERITE’, pushes a key ethical question behind female silence to its critical endpoint, asking to what extent Lacan stole the life of his patient in order to build and consolidate his own. Copus inhabits the thoughts of both figures: Marguerite, as she journeys from deep grief and paranoia brought on by the still birth of a child, towards a kind of release; Lacan, as he strives to find the facts and fit them to his theory. In visceral imagery, Copus dramatizes Marguerite’s initial determination not to empower Lacan:

Because he has asked her please not to spare any details
and nothing, she knows, would gladden him more than to picture
the way her hair stuck damply to her temples
and hung in ribbony strands, her blood-streaked thighs
like two sleek seals exhausted from the journey;

(‘Dayroom I’)

The relationship unfolds via a number of ambitiously articulated vignettes. Two poems entitled ‘Consulting Room’, one in the voice of each protagonist, occupy opposite pages. Evoking the shifts in perception which are the critical stakes in this encounter, the form of the poems varies, quatrains for Lacan, tercets for Marguerite. Spatial metaphors evoking skewed perspectives suggest wildly different ways of seeing. In an arresting collision of form and content, Copus brings us the shifting movements of the mind itself as she articulates Lacan and Marguerite’s developing awareness; their thoughts are interlaced with fragments of Baudelaire whom Marguerite loved to recite. That is, their thoughts, are mediated through poetry, through its innate attribute of thinking and seeing anew:

Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux…
Well, things will go easier now; we share a goal.
In step beside your own is a second shadow

ranged against the angle of the day.

(‘Consulting Room, LACAN’)

Copus’s themes include transgressive acts arising from men’s exploitation of women, particularly younger women, story-telling, family and the nature of time. All are deftly relayed through a distinctive range of strategies – curling clauses of mixed-tense syntax which render time densely continuous, acute sensitivity to the soundworld of a poem and the dramatic voice. The book’s central sequence is nuanced and if Marguerite feels realer than Lacan, that’s a minor quibble.

Perhaps because Copus is so interested in the dramatic scenario, the dramatic voice, several of her poems make use of the naturalistic technique of enjambment. This has mixed results. When combined with heightened vocal notes it can be powerful; in ‘Benediction,’ Marguerite’s outpouring of emotion is heartrending enough to make the reader, too, weep. At times, though, such as the opening of ‘Wolfman Jack’, the one phrase unfolding over several lines results in poetry that is under-pressured. Copus’s work is often at its best when it leans towards the poetic rather than the dramatic line, when it focuses the poetic line’s distilling mechanisms of trope, line break and line-unit. ‘Acts of Anger’ is a blistering story of utter innocence and uncontrolled rage. It’s punctuated by interpolations acquainting us with scholarly maxims. Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of another writer who uses just such a device – another Classicist, another conjurer of a vanished voice; Anne Carson in Nox, and of how glancingly acutely she will always come at insight or emotion. ‘Acts of Anger’ is potent but sometimes its impact can be diluted by what feel like rather arbitrary line and stanza breaks. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal to admire in Girlhood, notably the humane philosophical vision which asserts itself despite the ramifying darkness. Numerous strong poems sit alongside ‘MARGUERITE’. ‘Creation Myth’ is intoxicating in its music; ‘The Grievers’, stirringly dignified, as it conveys in liquid lines of stately pentameter the sheer wonder of the halting recovery that can be found after loss.

If Marguerite Pantaine fought tooth and nail against her daughter’s life and death moving into the public domain, Rebecca Goss, in her previous collection Her Birth (2013), believed urgently that her own daughter’s had to – an impulse she is now interrogating, as she indicates on her website, through a PhD. Goss’ latest collection, Girl, focuses on the female body and female desire. Cherishing friendships and family relationships and celebrating sexuality, the book is powered by the risk and thrill of living. The spare, sensual poems are sifted through the demotic and everyday – we encounter bin bags, tube journeys, joggers – but they are bright with images of light, full of fireworks, light-bulbs, constellations and the epiphanies of motherhood. The voice can be tender, sassy, opinionated. Moments of vulnerability are few, for example, the lightning-bolt of doubt caused by stumbling with her new baby daughter in August, the month her first child died; (“when you were trying// to prove recovery/ and control,” – ‘To Fall’) or the piercing intimacy that informs of ‘With Sarah’: (“I met him, your first child,//at the funeral of mine”), where sorrow and a rush of love for a girlfriend are held in compelling counterpoint. In this piece, as in ‘it is still my favourite thing’, Goss continues to mine distinctive terrain which makes the best of her poetry compelling. She charts complex love – for stepchildren, for girlfriends who are mothers whose children did not die before their second birthday.

I ‘d have welcomed greater formal range in the collection (couplets dominate, not every time to best effect) and also greater variety in the cadence of the poems’ endings. However, the sequence inspired by the paintings of Alison Watt attests to a potent alchemy between Watt’s abstract, and Goss’s architectonic, imagination. These poems are impressive for launching seams of intense emotion from so minimalist a source. ‘Girl’, in particular, is graphic, adroitly controlled and fields images of striking precision.

Niall Campbell’s second collection, Noctuary (a diary for the late hours) manages to feel both infinitely old and enigmatically new. Disembodied voices move like phantoms through the book, fragments of rhythms that conjure ballads, riddles and nursery rhymes, as though the speaker cannot but turn to the music of ancestral voices to determine questions of fatherhood and how to rear his small son. Despite all this communion, the poems seem to occur in a vacuum, in a solitary nightscape where father and son are the only solid presence. Yet the book is contemporary in its consciousness of gender roles with its depiction of father as child-carer, its attention to pronouns, its careful reference to axewomen as well as axemen.

Some of the simplest love poems such as ‘February Morning’ which reveals the father rising to his task after a gesture of his son – “then his head dropped in the groove/of my neck, true as a keystone, and I fixed:” – are the most immediately affecting. But the collection’s strong points lie also in its depiction of ambivalence and in the unexpected direction taken by a number of the poems. Voice is of interest to this writer and it has a variety of registers. Intimate at times, it can also be intriguingly detached, or provocative, as in the punchy ‘Glasgow.’ The poems solder metaphors out of restricted vocabulary and large concepts such as “heart”, “way” and “road”. The aim of the aesthetic here, as in the work of Robert Frost, is to create a symbolic universe where the recurrence of a noun’s sound defamiliarizes, rendering its sense freshly minted. There is a risk in this and not all Campbell’s pieces achieve lift off. However, in one of the best poems, ‘Language’, the repetition of the word “bird”, its flitting call from line to line, works consummately, a joyous achievement.