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Review: Definitions of Distance by Jake Campbell
Through small vignettes Campbell inundates his Northeast with a poetic sensibility

Definitions of Distance

By, Jake Campbell

Red Squirrel Press, 36pp

In Definitions of Distance, young poet Jake Campbell tracks the geographic and psychic space that has surrounded him his entire life and seeks to articulate all of its endearing intricacies. Campbell candidly poeticizes his Northeast and suffuses the minor moments of life with acute thematic depth. Appositely placed in the centre of the collection is the pamphlet’s heart, Campbell translates space into a swimming pool where ‘we / float through each other’s ripples; / kicking, pulling / over this chasm / of loving from far away’. The collection’s title poem establishes the over-arching agenda of his poetry, the tension of how to maintain an attachment to a space you now only fleetingly inhabit. 

With its confessional tone, the reader is repeatedly reminded that it is Campbell’s voice talking to them as if reader and poet are walking together along South Shields beach and trading stories. Each poem hosts a sincerity that brings the reader imaginatively into Oakleigh Gardens or underneath the ‘piss-steam’ of the Stadium of Light or the warmth generated by a polystyrene cup of Bovril. Campbell’s skill rests in his ability to invest the smallest action with enough weight to shift the reader’s spirit. In ‘The fall’ the poet details a dog falling from a cliff as if ‘an envelope slipping / down the back of a radiator’. The poem closes with the collection’s most memorable moment: ‘He took a solitary black hair from the edge  / of the passenger seat and rolled it till / his fingers ached’. Vignettes like this define Definitions of Distance; the poet initially places himself in the corner of events as a witness to his father, as well as his grandfather, and then gradually there is a movement toward the centre and, therefore, a progression toward resolution.

Beginning with ‘My Granddad Buries King at Souter Lighthouse,’ continuing with ‘Stadium of Light, December 1999’ and concluding with ‘Heredity Seen Through an Eight Inch Mirror With a Disposable Razorblade,’ the narrator moves from a young boy with ’a strip of mud awaiting its turf delivery’ to inheriting his father’s Fusion Power. There is maturation over the collection. In an effort to measure the space separating himself from the refuge of his home, the poet swims in the sensuous drench of memory and comes out accepting that the ‘face in the glass becomes / Dad and Granddad before me.’ The collection ends with an acceptance of this uniquely depicted experience. Conceding that there is space left to find, a space full of information that ‘each omit[ed] to tell the other,’ like the ‘scuzz of stubble / combed through her hair / in a cuddle / will need washing away’. Campbell in his final poem, ‘At Land’s End,’ suggests a negotiation of distance as the poet can control the distance in front of him through a viewfinder ‘ready, whenever we want / for us to zoom.’

Campbell successfully casts unpoetic objects like Reeboks, Four Four Two and Safeway Bags alongside moments of familial togetherness.  His collection attempts to define a distance that stretches geographically, psychically and even through time and arises at a moment of clarity. By the end of the collection Campbell’s poetic voice has turned into the Narwhal, as he himself can now ‘emerge unfased’ from those ‘huge caves / of water’ redolent of the swimming pool that later grows to surround him.

Nathan Ouriach is a writer and current intern at the Young Writers Hub. He can be found on Twitter here.