Issue Two

Winter 2012

Gerry Cambridge, Notes for Lighting a Fire, 64pp, £10
HappenStance, 21 Hatton Green, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 4SD

HappenStance is primarily a pamphlet press so this hardback collection is something of a rarity in their lists. Helena Nelson’s press has a reputation for quality products, creating some very attractive pamphlets and this volume keeps that reputation high. It’s a stylish and elegant book, feels lovely in the hand, has a subdued design and a quietly conservative, elegant font, calling up traditional poetic values in its look and feel. The only design feature I thought worked against this is a slightly narrow left margin, making some poems seem just a little cramped on the page, but this is perhaps a design decision intended to accommodate some unusually long lines.

What about the poems themselves? I found them a little mixed. On the one hand, there are many poems of close natural observation which capture exactly the description of the creature or environment of their subject. In fact, several such poems avoid naming the subject, so the poem becomes something of a riddle. Puzzle, however, is not the driving force behind these poems: it’s the complexity of capturing physical description of natural objects which seems to excite this poet. And he’ll veer between the lyrical and the sardonic in that description. Here, for example, are flamingoes about to take off:

They are bibulous retired colonels
with boxers’ broken noses,
who happen to be cross-dressers, discoursing
one imagines, in a tone
of languorous hauteur. Each neck
 is an Indian rope,

This is sharply witty and accurately amusing. However, the poem as a whole does not travel beyond this mode, heaping pointed but unconnected observations on top of each other, to create something between a characterisation and a caricature of the birds at the moment of flight. So, whilst descriptively inventive, somehow such poems themselves do not seem to take-off.

More satisfying are those poems where the poet seems to have a stronger emotional investment than that of mere observer. Intriguingly, this happens in the several poems which concern what I’ve just learned is called “oology”, the study, and especially the collection, of birds’ eggs. As a child Cambridge seems to have been an avid collector, as all the poems “Blowing Out an Egg”, “Sacrifice”, “A Sparrowhawk’s Nest”, “The Herriers” and “At Twelve” deal with different emotional aspects of the experience of egging. But similar imagery recurs in those poems which do not have birds as their main topic:

Leaves I like,
at least as much
for themselves,
as they
shelter the simmering eggs in May
from such
thieves as I once was, who preferred,
God knows why, the blown husks light as mind
to their chirruping ends.
   (Light Leaves 2)

Whilst this preoccupation is clearly a regret now for the poet, it was also clearly a passion for the boy, and that passion can be felt not only in the bird poems: “A sparrowhawk’s egg,/ a bartered death that said I live! I live!” but energises much of the nature imagery, too, for Cambridge’s eye for visual detail releases some of this energy. His excitement overflows into hyperbole, exclamation and apostrophe. I’ve not read any collection that is so free with the exclamation mark:

The whole vast west was a pink astonishment –
everything in the room was pink!
     (That Dusk)

I believe I can understand the motivations behind such dramatic exclamation, but I’m not sure it yields compelling verse. I guess there will be some readers who enjoy such phrasing, but others may find it a little histrionic.

In contrast, there are sustained groups of poems which are powerfully moving, the most satisfying of which are probably those in ‘Light Leaves (1)’. These are grounded in the mundane, but their rich yet restrained imagery conveys all the subtleties of a son coping with his father’s illness. Perhaps the subject is one that every poet is obliged to engage with, but only a few poets find that deep, solid insight which resonates with any son. Cambridge is one:

This is me,
brother now as much as son in this shorn-bare
exposure to the judging sight and air –
fussless as mowing a lawn, the heft of a skull
plain and solid as an iron hull.
(Light Leaves 1)