TEXT review

Elizabeth Campbell, Letters to the Tremulous Hand

review by Sandra Burr


Elizabeth Campbell
Letters to the Tremulous Hand

John Leonard Press, Elwood, Victoria, 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775787-6-4
68pp. AUD $23.95

This collection is presented as two distinct parts - a suite of poems addressing the Tremulous Hand of the title, preceded by a number of poems examining a broader array of topics. While it is certainly interesting to have the archival figure of a medieval scholar skilfully brought to our attention, his presence is overshadowed by that of the author. In these very personal poems Campbell wrestles with universal questions about life, loss, love and acceptance.

Campbell's poetry is infused with a sombre melancholy. Her meticulous renderings, keenly observed through fearless, unflinching eyes, show how well she knows her subjects and herself. Campbell speaks with weary ambivalence about her personal attributes in 'Proverb':

But Mother Doubt, you early laid on me

your threefold cradle-gifts:
sadness, restlessness,
and foremost of these, a hopeless

passion for reality.

Similarly 'Fetch', perhaps the most beautiful poem in this volume bristles with frustration:

do you think I want to be
unhappy with the world!

Two themes run through the collection. The first is a sense of struggle, suffocation, drowning and crushing airlessness attributable perhaps to the strictures of an asthmatic childhood spoken of in 'Asthma' and which is particularly evident in the escalating breathlessness of 'The Song's Bride'.

The other theme is horses. Campbell's horse poems are not just sentimental tributes to beloved horses. There is something much darker, deeper, more confronting and appalling here than conventional horse love. Horses appear to be a locus of loss and longing for Campbell. Her grief at what she sees as the unbridgeable divide between humans and horses is expressed in 'Recurring' when she says of her runaway mare:

she doesn't need that love
and you couldn't take her weight.

And again in 'Longitude' when the child realises that 'we will never be one person'. To Campbell horses are an enigma, a paradox:

: an intimacy that bullies you

then freaks when you walk out of sight

She understands the inevitably asymmetry at the heart of our relationships with horses and, in poems such as 'Vice' and 'Talent', decries the careless inhumanity to which we too often subject them. She gives us the truth about horses in poems such as the very wonderful 'Structure of the Horse's Eye' and rails against the obtuseness of those who stubbornly refuse to see horses for what they are in 'Horse' and 'Equus'.

Campbell captures and honours the quintessential nature of her subjects in verse that is complex, elegant and tightly controlled. Each word has been carefully selected and placed on the page with infinite care and these are her great strengths as a poet. But there is a bleakness about her steely objectivity and a sense that she does not quite trust herself to write with anything other than detached emotion. Just occasionally she loosens her grip on the reins and reveals a glimpse of her underlying humanity. 'Illuminations' not only stitches the past to the present, it is also full of wry humour; the last stanza of 'Fetch' is abandoned and poignant and in 'Forget' Campbell is touchingly torn between objectivity and compassion for her mare whose foal has died.

In 'ansyn/face' Campbell asks:

What do we do
when we take another's words and say them
again in a different hand?

My hope in writing this review is that I have distilled some of the essence of this very fine poet who writes with clarity and finesse and whose words serve as a constant reminder that, in this world, we should take nothing for granted.



Sandra Burr is a PhD candidate in the School of Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. She is researching the bond between women and horses.


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Vol 12 No 2 October 2008
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb