Camilla Nelson’s words bring things to life. ‘Stir this miracle to waking,’ she says, in the first poem in Apples & Other Languages, a signal of the alchemy of ideas to follow. Here, the intangible and the inanimate take on new form: windpipes ‘sound themselves furiously’, a song ‘breaks the ice we stand on’. But Nelson’s sparse phrases do not instrumentalise her environment. She does not write metaphors for human experience, but instead spins the natural and the man-made in a productive relationship, harnessing the energy of the space beyond them both. ‘We use our words for trees,’ she writes in Thinking Tree Shapes, articulating at once the ambitions and the limits of poetry; ‘we call these trees our/ words’.
This collection brings together three bodies of work, all connected to Nelson’s PhD research at Falmouth University (formerly, Dartington College of Arts). The first section, A Musical Introduction, is made up of works written in response to Björk’s album Biophilia which, says Nelson, ‘explores musical composition as a multi-authored interaction between humans and other than-human organisms’. These poems are calls to action: ‘feel your organs’, Nelson commands at the start of Miracle; ‘align mineral bodies,’ she says at the opening of Chrysalis. And although this action is, implicitly, taken by humans (if only because we are the readers) it is clearly compelled by the other-than. Each page is sprung with strange juxtapositions of the senses, energetic ways to animate our bodies, inspire new modes of being: ‘manic with merriment/ hooting saliva to the moon’.
Nelson burnishes the edges of most words, spacing them carefully across the page with their corners gleaming.
The poems in the middle section, Apples, are drawn entirely from Nelson’s PhD research, and bear deeper traces of their processes of creation. They feel more abstract in tone, although Nelson’s attention to sounds and meanings is as precise as ever. Neologisms arise organically in her work – an apple is ‘cackcrackling’, for example; a camera makes a ‘mewclick’. And Nelson burnishes the edges of most words, spacing them carefully across the page with their corners gleaming, their beginnings and their endings crisp and clear. Even old words feel strange in her poetry: a sequence in Thinking Tree Shapes, for example, reads, ‘tree lobes/ symbiont fungus …’ Each sound hangs like a bead of dew on the ridge of a leaf: self-contained, complete, and entirely dependent on the weight of its neighbours.
To devise these poems, Nelson inscribed text into organic materials – apples and trees – and then watched the process of decay affecting the material. ‘I was interested in how we create a page environment,’ she says, ‘that manifests this experience of digesting, translating and recomposing a tree environment in writing.’ Like her poems, then, Nelson’s ambition reaches beyond the normal limits of language. In Reader Write A Response, for example, a longish poem punctuated with its title as a refrain, Nelson describes ‘the parrot squeak of camera tongue’ and the ‘unhappy swipe of waterproof’, as if these objects are trying to tell us something. At the same time, real language-as-communication eludes her: ‘a scrawl I can’t quite read’, ‘the absent speech of thought’. Here, Nelson’s words attempt to enact not only a symbiosis of the human and the other-than human, but also a meeting of the organic and the inorganic, the page and the word, the lived and the remembered. Haunted by formal constraints that are felt but not explained (until an endnote at the close of the book), these poems perform the paradox of language: Nelson writes about a cycle of life and death that will persist beyond words, but her words are a vehicle for (delusions of) persistence. The effect is poignant and devastatingly precise. Like an epitaph for someone who has fallen out of living memory, these poems remember more than they can represent.
Other Languages, the final and longest section of this book, ‘ghosts’ the thinking of Nelson’s PhD research, she says. Unlike the other sections, her endnote describes these poems in relation to the places and contexts in which she wrote them, instead of the processes she used. But the poems strike the most confident tone, with Nelson fully enmeshed in the world she is describing. They flow with a sensory stream of consciousness, Nelson’s own self pulled into the tide of the material world, and vice versa. ‘My body vibrates with the sudden stop of bells,’ she says, as the opening of Full.
I had intended to end, here, with a description of a repeated motif in Nelson’s work – a kind of anchoring in the last line. Often, her poems finish with a rhythmic finality, as if they are closing the door to a glimpse into another realm. But when I went back to find some examples I realised that I had misremembered the effect. It is true that many poems end on a drumbeat of sorts: even syllables tapped out across the page: ‘and there’s diamonds in the dust’ is the last line of On the Banks of the River Avon’s Waitrose, Central Bath; Stumped closes with the words ‘like cotton line through butter’. But this beat belies the poetic imagination of the images invoked.
Nelson’s poems soar through her landscape – half flying, half flapping in the wind – but are tethered to the page with the heartbeat of the final line.
In Laugharne, for example, an eerie, sensory response to her environment, Nelson is unsettled by the world around her, ‘Bodies bubble within white stone walls’ she says; and the world seems to agree, ‘The blue warm of the February sun grows cold’. But the last line, forming a stanza of its own, offers a different perspective: ‘A curlew threads its needle song throughout’. This shift shocks the poem out of Nelson’s own consciousness, casting doubt on the reality she has created so far. The image of embroidery – neat and orderly – is at odds with Nelson’s frayed, inner thoughts. And that last word, ‘throughout’, is an arrow of potential, like a needle jutting through a hole. The even rhythm of those last five syllables may sound like an ending, then, but their meanings spin the poem in a new direction.
This motif is less like an anchor than a kite string. Nelson’s poems soar through her landscape – half flying, half flapping in the wind – but are tethered to the page with the heartbeat of the final line. Perhaps this is why I thought of those cast iron organs parked at the edges of docks; I could feel the power held taut in those words. In fact, the words’ real power lies in their ability to suggest what is just beyond sight, beyond language, beyond ourselves, human or other. The last word of the last poem in Nelson’s book is the gloriously ambiguous, carefully spaced, ‘leaves’.
Image credit: Camilla Nelson, The Same Apple, 2014.