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Blog tour review of ‘All Island No Sea’ by Christopher Campbell

An extra treat today to celebrate the publication of All Island No Sea by Christopher Campbell (Alien Buddha Press, 2022) and the 5,000th visitor to this website, an additional review!

Since reading Chris Campbell’s White Eye of the Needle I have been a fan of his poetry. I therefore opened All Island No Sea with great anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed. Yet again he has written a relatable, accessible, highly engaging volume of poetry that quietly prompts readers to reflect upon the significance of key moments in their own lives, such as moving house, the birth of children and the arrival of new neighbours, and to think about some of life’s bigger questions.

In All Island No Sea Campbell deals with the subject of change. In some cases those changes are the product of choice, in other cases they are forced upon him. Some are welcome, some are not; some are disappointing, some satisfying. I particularly enjoyed the laugh-out-loud account of the neighbour who moved in with an aggressive, troublesome dog in Dear Alan, Alan, Alan. Through clever juxtaposition of before and after details and a driving rhythm, the poem builds relentlessly towards its humorous climax: ‘Alan, I’ll turn my TV up/ to cover the barks, hobble/ to the fridge for more ice; empty the tray, so it’s just the way/ I enjoyed your house: neat/ and clear, before you moved in/ with your bastard dog.’ The anger and frustration is palpable. Many a reader will have experienced something similar with new neighbour and will be smiling and nodding as they read.

In the title poem, All Island No Sea, a poem that moves the collection from the domestic arena to the political, Campbell reflects on the sort of change which is sought but which proves disappointing. It describes an island. No longer satisfied with its existence as an island, it ‘latches onto a larger/ landmass.’ The moment is described as ‘audacious’, something bold and daring but a risk: it can only ‘hope’ to be ‘noticed by larger continents’. The move, however, fails to realise the island’s hopes and aspirations and it ‘weeps itself to sleep, regret it tried to be/ something it isn’t.’ Happiness is restored, however, when it returns to its original state. Though this may well be a commentary on the UK’s relationship with the EEC, the political story is told in such a way that it is given a human dimension and captures the tragic consequences of ambition that overreaches itself.

Some changes Campbell explores are more fulfilling than this, such as the arrival of a new child. In I Scrape the Earth Underneath This Pram the birth is portrayed as something ‘to celebrate’; a moment of new, exciting love which deserves to be marked permanently ‘like initials on a tree.’ It is a transformational joy: clouds become ‘oversized sombreros’ and it is accompanied by the appropriate theme tune of ‘Here Comes the Sun’. It is a moment to ‘savour’. The same overwhelming joy of fatherhood is to be found in Minutes Tiptoe. Though roused from his sleep in the early hours, there is no resentment or frustration, just paternal love, conveyed so strongly in both the description ‘Bright eyes/ button / nose’ and in the images ‘you rock the silence,/ only//see in black and white,//but adorn the room with hiccups.’ Life has been simplified for him to the essentials, become ‘black and white’, yet made better (adorned) by the presence of the child.

Such moments, Campbell suggests are precious, for life is transient and moves at too fast a pace. Nowhere is this pace more effectively captured than in The First Few Letters of Happy Birthday which describes a driver trying to write a birthday card as he’s driving! The act of card giving is contrasted with the value of seeing and spending time with the recipient: ‘I wasn’t expecting a card … / better to see each other in person.’ As the poet says, ‘Life has to be busy if you’re writing/ cards on the road.’ Consequently, there appears something empty about the gesture. Despite the sentiment written in the card, ‘you’re the best,/ there at every turn’, the recipient imagines the engine of the giver’s car ‘still running outside’: his companion doesn’t appear to have time for him. The card giver has possibly allowed the pace of life to deny him the opportunity to make such moments count. Unlike the father in I Scrape the Earth Underneath This Pram he may not appreciate that one needs to savour the moments with the ones we love.

Another view of the transience of life is offered in That Which We Own. In asking the questions such as ‘Do you won a tree if it stands/ in your garden?’ and ‘Do the coins in your pockets/ belong to you, even in the washing machine?’ Campbell raises bigger, universal questions about life’s purpose and about what gives life value. He concludes, ‘Pawn// all our belongings; forget/ a receipt – before the earth swallows/ us back/ under its stewardship.’ The transience of life makes material possessions irrelevant. We need to look for meaning elsewhere: ‘Perhaps we ought to start/ a float – part from the things we ‘own’,/ appreciate those things we don’t.’ An example of this response is offered in the preceding poem in the collection, Morning. After a night spent camping the campers step out of the tent, feeling at one with their natural surroundings: ‘We see the trees converse,/ swaying after staying/ up all night/ and our beds at home are forgotten/ like distant/ relatives,// as if we were meant to exist here all along.’ It is such moments that enhance life and we hang onto in our memories. For Campbell memories sustain us. In The Morning You Threw Wet Socks as We Argued Over Bagels he describes the tense atmosphere arising from a domestic argument: the room is ‘sour’ and ‘angry words’ reverberate. The smell of the bagels, however, triggers memories of happiness and domestic bliss: ‘Just the smell of a bagel; to remember/ all the times we danced.’ It is memories that help us overcome the difficult, challenging and uncomfortable times.

All Island No Sea is a compelling read, sometimes humorous, sometimes moving, but always subtle, thoughtful and reflective. In my review of White Eye of the Needle I called Campbell ‘a remarkably talented writer’, this new collection has only served to strengthen that view. This is a collection for all lovers of poetry.


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