Death and its divide stalk the poems of Chad Campbell’s second collection, Nectarine (Signal Editions, 2021). Following his debut, Laws & Locks (Signal Editions, 2015), Nectarine traces themes of violence, loss, and exit across islands and forests, through lakes and locks, upriver to cabins, shacks, cities, prairie towns. And through this path there is a sloughing. The physical body comes apart. In its undoing, the thin layer between worlds is revealed: translucent and blue, as if a pane of glass.
Campbell’s dead do not speak. Animal or human, their silence serves as record and accusation in the eye of the witness. In “Funk Island”, a man takes two auks from their stone pen to a cauldron, wordlessly boiling them alive. In “Hatchback Engines”, the reverberation of an explosion before the body is found, the remains of a boy in his burnt-out car, where he lit a stick of dynamite, and held it close, and died.
The thin line between living and dead – and their closeness thereafter – is Nectarine’s central theme. Campbell uses daubs of colour to mark the inhabitants of each world. In “The Fisherman”, the short, hard rhythms act like the strokes of a scaling knife, echoing the effect Steven Heighton employs for his swimmer in “Endurance”:
over a bucket, took out a knife
and turned the blade of it into the work,
scales fell silver, beryl, blue,
the smooth exactness of his hand flaring
Blue for the dead and their witnesses: the beryl-and-blue scales of that dead or dying fish; for the blue of a kingfisher, the boundary-breaking bird, lodged like “a blue spirit in the hollow of a tree” (“Sanders Rare Prints”); for the pebbled blue eyes of a wolf staring at a frozen calf that has fallen through the ice and died (“The Invention of Glass”).
Campbell’s use of blue for the dead contrasts how he uses other colours, yellow and red and orange representing the small fires of the still-living. There are the yellow pebbles taken from a tow path, “the rations of glances of you / I didn’t know I had left” (“Yellow Pebbles”); the fire of the red hair “a river, / and yes, it extends—the season / on which all my seasons depend” (“The Fifth Season”); the orange of a liquid taken to hold on to life, drunk to “make the nerves fluoresce / around the tumours pressing in his throat (“The Map of the Earth at Night”).
The poems in Nectarine know how to sit at the uneasy border between worlds. In “At the Surabaya Zoo”, a bear stares brokenly at a few apples. In “The Tin-Legged God”, the speaker describes someone they know, dancing by the pool table with friends in a small town bar, as one of many “figures who remain / in loops.” Campbell’s subjects show that death is not the only stillness, that not just the dead can be trapped in amber. There are many ways to live, or not, the demarcation lines never visible, and excruciatingly thin.
And though the seasons shift throughout the collection, an undercurrent of cold and winter is always present. Within these poems there is a particular chill, one that circumscribes both the scenes and their witnesses. This can be literal – the auks on Funk Island in the cold late summer, trapped first by their pen, then the cauldron; the calf under ice; or the cold that “winnows at the keyhole, would / blow out the ember and sweep the dust of you” (“The Cold”). But it is also implicitly present in the landscape of the poems, in houses in which fires go out (“The Fifth Season”), only to be relit, later on, as veins of mica along the coastline of Kejimkujik, where “you can sway / in the head of a pine watching the long lines / of the dead who cannot turn their caravans / home” (“The Map of the Earth at Night”). Witnessing the travels of the dead and lost is never comfortable. And in his careful use of rhythm and chime, in the compression of his scenes, Campbell creates a tight focus, inviting us to watch the episodic parade of the passed.
Though elegy is present in so many of these works, it is only explicitly named once. In “Chromophilia”, the speaker describes a night on a prairie hillside, being told by a companion that an elegy will “swim into the ocean / until you either fall together underneath the water / or swim back ashore.” Nectarine subverts this. Neither drowning nor returning, the poems catch a current that carries them indefinitely. Rather than crossing over, or back, they travel the ocean separating the worlds, floating on its cold, black water, the horizon indistinct in every direction, and always impossibly far away.
Julian Day lives in Winnipeg. His debut chapbook is Late Summer Flowers (Anstruther Press, 2021).