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Review of ‘White Eye Of The Needle’ by Chris Campbell

White Eye of the Needle by Chris Campbell (The Choir Press) is a poignant collection of poems that captures so much about this unique time in our history. Although not all of the poems are written specifically about the pandemic, they function as a commentary on Lockdown by reminding us of the pleasures of everyday life that we are currently denied.

Many of Campbell’s Lockdown poems convey the insularity of lives during the pandemic which he shows persists even when the regulations have been relaxed. Take for example, his Careful what you touch. The bustle of the city’s streets has to some degree returned: ‘Where once was the odd stroller. Now restrictions have eased; //There’s ten.’ However, this is not normality. The shoppers maintain their distance: they remain suspicious and wary of contact with one another: the man in the brown boots ‘passes a couple…and picks up/The pace’. He is nervous about the proximity and wants to move on as quickly as possible. Furthermore, the shopping queues require minding, so that the shoppers do not get too close;  ‘a woman dressed in black’, as if in mourning, ‘rubs gel on her hands’;  and people are still wearing ‘masks’. They ‘float past’ each other: there in no interaction, no engagement. Even people-watching (a sort of interaction) is unacceptable. Campbell describes it as ‘like fare-dodging’; an anti-social act.  

This sense of alienation is adroitly captured in a number of poems, perhaps most notably in Chimney snorkels.  If Edward Hopper were a poet and living today, this is a poem he might have written; it has the same melancholy and sense of isolation that we find in his paintings of urban streets of the 40’s and 50’s. This is a landscape of empty cafés and pubs. The smoke from the chimneys of the narrow boats is oppressive: it ‘invades the crisp air, putrid and thick’. Suspicion is in the air: the narrowboats are described as like ‘guards on shift’, and the daytime geese as a ‘patrol’. The ‘we’ in the poem ‘catch a couple’ (my emphasis) ‘hand-in-hand’ as though that were a crime and they ‘keep their distance’ from them. Normal life has clearly come to a halt and times are hard: ‘Who has the dough for electricity while/No one bakes and not a soul visits?’ the poet asks. There is no joy here: the economy has collapsed and social interaction is discouraged. How different this scene is to the hustle and bustle of a vibrant Nottingham Campbell describes in Synchronised buskers where ‘The city hall hums/Prestige, gently synchronising with the buskers//And fruit market sellers; ‘Pears for a pound/Pears for a pound’!

Synchronised buskers acts almost as a catalogue of what has been lost under Lockdown. In fact the poems, such as this one, which Campbell has not written specifically in response to the pandemic, when read in this context, serve to remind us of the simple ordinary pleasures that we may have previously taken for granted: the pleasures of sharing experiences with new friends in White eye of the needle that significantly describes the snow covered landscape as ‘like jewels in the sun’ and the ski helmets holding their goggles as ‘found treasure’; of taking tea in St Ives café, where the art of the local residents illustrates the delights to be found in the place and shows why ‘the artists remain’;  of foreign travel with a loved one in the idyllic You shine where the two travellers ‘bask’ in their ‘nest’ and where the speaker’s partner’s ‘yellow and white striped top seems/ Sweeter than all of Italy’s ice creams’; and of days out,  in Cages, when the experience releases a ‘primal laughter’, an innate joy in the moment and in the connection made with another human being.

Over the last twelve months I’ve read a lot of poetry that has attempted to make sense of the pandemic and its effects upon our lives. Unsurprisingly much has focussed on the privations of Lockdown.  Chris Campbell’s beautifully crafted poems are different and stand out from the crowd.  Whilst he provides a compassionate, often moving account of the hardships of the pandemic, he balances this with a celebration of life’s pleasures, most notably when experienced in the company of a loved one. In doing so this outstanding collection challenges the readers to ensure that when we do finally emerge from this difficult time we focus on what matters and savour every moment. This is an important, original collection of poems by a remarkably talented writer. Read and enjoy! I did.  

Chris Campbell is a former national and regional journalist, who has published two collections of poetry. His latest, White Eye of the Needle, explores love, life and lockdown, and was published through The Choir Press in April (2021). He currently lives in Nottingham with his wife, where several of the poems were written. Born in Dublin, Chris grew up in Warwickshire and later Gloucestershire. He was awarded an MA in Journalism from Kingston University, after graduating from the University of Exeter in Economic and Political Development with a year’s study in Uppsala, Sweden. Chris has a passion for poetry and has judged young writer competitions in Swansea. White Eye of the Needle also includes pieces from the author’s time in Bristol, London and Glasgow. Click here to find out more and how to buy a copy.

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