“Smash this circus to the ground. Howl fiercely at the moon”
Jen Campbell’s The Girl Aquarium has a very distinct poetic voice. It’s like entering a dream where all the fairy tales, folktales, magical creatures, and children’s stories are participating in the same circus. The term Robert Lowell used when introducing Plath’s Ariel was ‘a controlled hallucination’ and it’s the same term that first came to my mind when reading Campbell’s collection. In addition to the beautiful imagery, there are insights to the inner world of womanhood: perceived by the male gaze tapping on the glass of female aquariums whilst simultaneously containing overlooked multitudes. The corporeal existence of womanhood divorced from all the potential, feeling, and depth. There are limbs severed and scattered all over this collection, and a great focus is placed on movement and performance. In “The woman’s private Looking-glass” the poetic voice urges us to “smash this circus to the ground” and to “howl fiercely at the moon.”
This collection plays with form, it is cohesive and well-edited, and acts as social criticism in the disguise of a dance with words. There’s fluidity and movement not only in the form of the poems but in their content. I will try to focus on one component of all I’ve described. The distinction between how a woman is perceived versus her inner world(s). In “Luminiferous Aether” the poetic voice narrates:
“…there are limbs reaching out / for the Peter Pan collars of speechless girls. / They wait in skin that is not their own. / In the dark they forget the names / of each others’ mothers…in fractured handbags they carry/ knitted souls. They Stretch themselves…..their poor/scarred heads. They know too many things now.”
There is so much to unpack in this single poem. Young girls forced to grow up so soon, to stretch themselves out in skins not of their own and fit a mould of something they have not chosen. To forget that they too need care and protection and are just as lost as the boys. To know so much and be unable to break out of the corporeal prison. No matter what you say or do, you will never be perceived as anything more than something to be admired in your tight claustrophobic aquarium. We are reminded of this gaze throughout. For instance in “The Exorcism of the North Sea” aside from the voices of the past, the ‘ghost birds,’ the grandeur and splendor of the sea and nature, our head is forcibly turned to look at the reality beyond the sublime:
“….we are snow globes…young boys peer…girls in bathing suits. We stretch out our carol sheets and hum like bees.”
In the poem “The Girl Aquarium” the poetic voice shows the dual nature of being both forced to perform, whilst made to feel guilty for actively participating. Craving care and attention, whilst simultaneously being trapped into being perceived differently from who you are and lacking the deeply desired human experiences:
“Labelled doors, interactive exhibits….girls with extra limbs. They scuttle into corners, pretend they’re shy. …hashtag girls….hashtag nothing you’ve ever seen before in your tiny little life….a teenage boy bangs the window, gives them the finger. / The girls rush forward, lips open, kissing the glass…All the better to see you with”
Contrast this poem with “Movement”
“On the bus home, I think of all the constellations / hiding under my skin. / I think of the word vein / and decide I don’t like it. / I think of you and how – maybe / you flit and fit / within a different galaxy. / I write in my notebook in code / and think about gravity. / I think that maybe we’re both lost / in the skins of human planets.”
Presented with constellations and infinite worlds beneath the skin whilst reminded that you will only be seen only for the stretched out, dried, and manufactured covering on the outside. There are no words.
I loved this collection so much. I allowed myself to be amazed and immersed in the experience upon my first reading and so many lines and ideas kept coming back to me the following days. I couldn’t stop thinking about this collection, and I had to go back several times to unpack and interpret. When I tried to decide what I thought of it as a whole I asked myself if there was anything I would have subtracted or added to improve it, and nothing came to mind. The collection is mesmerizing, cohesive, and superbly edited. I highly recommend this collection to those who love poetry, magical realism, and fairy tales, and those looking to try a distinct voice in contemporary poetry.
I received an advanced reader copy for review from Bloodaxe Books. The book is available for pre-order and more information can be found on Campbell’s website. Jen Campbell is a towering figure on Booktube, a great podcast host, a poet, and an award-winning author of nonfiction, children’s books, and humour books.