‘Bugsworth Diary’ by Neil Campbell
-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
A strong sense of place pervades the poems in Neil Campbell’s Bugsworth Diary, published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press. In an interview with Irish writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir for her blog Women Rule Writer, Campbell remarks, ‘I write poems sometimes, entirely on instinct. Landscape is playing an increasing role in both [my poetry and fiction]. In fact, all my poems are nature poems really.’ In the same way that Egdon Heath behaves like a character in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, Campbell’s chapbook is dominated by the natural environment of Derbyshire and the Peak District, as the poet chronicles (all of the poems are dated) moments spent in its surroundings.
Birds are one of the creatures that constantly pop up in these poems. In particular, jackdaws seem to recur the most, with what they signify changing slightly with each (re)appearance. Early on in the sequence, they are a thwarted expectation: ‘Waiting for jackdaws / It’s a raven that comes first’ (‘Black Roses over Portobello’). In ‘Black Brook Heron’, around the middle of Bugsworth Diary, they have become something that can be counted upon, a cyclical pattern of nature (‘Contemplating the return / Of jackdaws at dusk’). As the poems emerge from ‘previous months of winter light’ (‘Jackdaw Fly-Past’), the poet develops a keener awareness of the particularity of this bird:
So close that for the first time
I could appreciate the silver
On their necks, missed at a distance
And mistaken for black
In previous months of winter light.
Although they make appearances in subsequent poems, ‘Jackdaws on Election Day’ feels like the culmination of this species’ trajectory in this chapbook. The poem is dated May 6th, 2010, polling day for the UK election that ultimately saw the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition gain power. The jackdaws are transformed into a figure of consolation for the poet (‘I didn’t know what to do, where to put myself / And I was drawn to the jackdaws at dusk’), and this is predicated upon the element of reliability already established by the earlier poems (‘I had watched them so many times before’). Interestingly though, the poem ends with the emphasis of this expectation of reassurance, rather than its fulfilment: ‘I saw there and like never before needed them / To lift from the trees that second time.’
This deferral is suggestive, especially when read against a poem like ‘What We Look For In Animals’, one of the shortest poems in Bugsworth Diary. Given its title, the poem reads like a warning against ascribing too much significance to nature and its patterns. The ‘woman next door’ and the cows do not appear to interact, and although the cows ‘look at her curiously’, they do so ‘While dropping great quantities of shit’, completely undermining any attempt at poeticising the moment. By the next stanza, they ‘turn away and follow each other / To the other side of the field’, while another stanza later, the woman ‘goes inside’, retreating from an abortive encounter with nature. To call this rejection on the cows’ part would only be to fall into the same trap of investing the animals with human agency. What they display would better be described as indifference.
Yet this indifference cannot run both ways. While nature’s cycles can affect human activities (think natural disasters), they also carry on regardless of us (think seasons), whereas human activities are constantly modifying the natural world, practically inviting interference from it at times (think flooding of seafront residences). This is brought home most forcefully by Campbell in the final portion of ‘Chinley Chernobyl’:
I had been enjoying
My Monday morning until the
Part when I came upon
A demolished factory littered
Around the base of a still
Standing though condemned
Chimney. And I realised that
Something resembling a disaster
Resided among these green hills.
Later that night some damp wood
I’d put on the fire began
To stink, and I wondered what
I might be breathing.
The alliteration of the title and ‘Chimney’ points out the industrial aspect of the ‘disaster / Resid[ing] among these green hills’. The sound of ‘demolished’ finds an echo within ‘condemned’, with the consonantal ‘d’ carried over into ‘disaster’, and later, ‘damp wood’, as if infecting and contaminating the latter. Those final lines highlight how the threat emanating from nature can in a way be an unanticipated punishment brought down upon ourselves for our inability to leave nature alone. That said, on the whole Bugsworth Diary did not particularly strike me as an attempt at environmental activism via poetry. What it did seem to be was a heartfelt celebration of the refuge that nature can still provide for the human psyche, if we learn to just be in it and allow it to do its work, as opposed to us trying to work it.