Snow White’s Coffin, by Kate Camp (VUP, 2013), 64 pp., $25.
Everything you thought was being alive
Is revealed as a problem
Which can be solved by good design…
Kate Camp’s latest poetry collection Snow White’s Coffin is beautifully designed, a pure white cover with nothing on it but the title and author given in the perfectly spare Helvetica font, and the image of the Braun Model SK55 stereo radiogramme that a note on the back of the book tells us is known as a ‘Snow White’s Coffin.’ This is a collection concerned with the problems of being alive, and good design is one of the strategies brought to bear on the problem.
But although a wealth of solutions, approaches and ruminations are offered to the reader, the problem of being alive remains as vital as ever. The poems in this collection conjure difficulties into being. The title poem refers to a childhood anxiety about “forgetting / the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell” of the family radiogramme, along with ‘that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck.’ But the reassurance that the presence of these memories in the poem seems to offer is troubled by further questions: ‘Why preserve one’s childhood memories? / So, like Egyptians, they might be packed into the grave?’
The release of a new Kate Camp collection is always an occasion for excitement. From the publication of her first book of poems, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars (1998), Camp has tackled vast ideas and has brought them alive with brilliant metaphors and precise observations of everyday details. The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (2010), which won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2011, took her further into the territory of the metaphysical, and even the theological. This is the collection with the wonderful poem in it about the swan in love with a pedal boat (a swan with his own theological preoccupations), but the lines I keep returning to are from the poem ‘At the risk of defying God and courting annihilation’: ‘I would never ask you for forgiveness:/ why ask the ocean for fresh water / when it is full of it / crammed between its deserts of salt?’ It is such a brilliant analogy, which at once emphasises the inaccessibility of forgiveness, and its nevertheless vast and elemental existence (complicated still further if we read this as spoken by a whale (the notes direct us to the introduction to an edition of Moby Dick for the source of the title line) for whom fresh water is unnecessary or, depending on how you look at it, always accessible in between the salt).
However, for all the depth and brilliance of the earlier collections, Snow White’s Coffinmay be Kate Camp’s best so far. As always there are the sharply observed details of ordinary life: the dogs trembling over their business in the park, the frozen milk carton swollen like a pillow, the way a builder holds a sheet of plywood as if ballroom dancing. But this collection gives these details an added force through the urgent awareness of death — and consequent preciousness of life — that shapes so many of these poems. ‘I don’t want to leave this world,’ is the conclusion of the second poem in the collection, ‘On reading Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ These poems are very much in the world, a world inhabited by embodied people ‘whose three dimensions mark the very hour in which realism reached its peak.’
Poem after poem explores the three dimensionality of living, or the four dimensionality of living in both space and time, the strangeness of leaving the past behind, the materiality of ‘standing on top of your shoes…walking inside the lining of your coat.’ Some key images recur: scabs, streets speckled with leaves or chewing-gum, cranes. The world and the body constantly build themselves over. We live inside bodies, inside time, inside clothes, inside rooms, inside our envelopes of air we might think of as space but which are equally made of time.
The poem ‘A living example’ offers one dramatic example of this problem of being ‘a player in space,’ dramatizing the metaphysical conundrum of moving through space and time by following one girl (‘with a beautiful shoulder’) up an escalator. Finally, she reaches her destination, Weyden’s annunciation, ‘in which Mary waves away the angel / with the gesture of one refusing flyers in the street.’ This is such a typical Kate Camp observation, to see with such precision the everyday gesture within high culture and the miraculous, but what this collection does even more so is the reverse, to see as miraculous the everyday action of riding an escalator and arriving somewhere elsewhere than where you began. To be in a position to refuse a flyer in the street the miracle of conception, embodiment and growth, the miracle of entering time, must have already occurred. How wonderful, how strange it is to be alive!
ANNA JACKSON‘s most recent collection of poems, Thicket, was a finalist in the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She teaches at Victoria University of Wellington.