If lighting a fire on a winter night is a way of staying alive, then so, one feels, was the writing of the poems in Gerry Cambridge’s new book, Notes for Lighting a Fire. These poems are filled with light and heat. They are often about light and staving off darkness and cleaving to essential things. Cambridge knows about essential things. He lived for 25 years in a caravan in rural Ayrshire, Scotland, from 1972 to 1997. A man who would choose to live like that won’t write frivolous poetry. Much is at stake here—a brightly original way of looking at the earth and a keen craft that works the joy he feels into his words. That’s what Cambridge does—he gets the love into the language.
He tells us what it’s like to “Fetch the metal bucket from the outhouse / under the bitter glint of winter stars.” As the fire in the book’s title poem blazes up and gives off its warmth, the poet praises the “primordial fire” he has made while
. . . earth in its tilt turning round
swings Orion up sparking like a spaceship
of light from behind the black burial mound of that hill.
Light, sky, earth and stars are essential for Cambridge, but so is sound. In these three lines you can hear the care he has given to creating a lyrical sonic texture. There is the alliteration in “tilt” and “turning” and “sparking” and “spaceship” and “behind the black burial mound.” Then there are the internal assonant echoes of “tilt,” “ship,” and “hill” and the consonantal repetitions of “r” in “round,” “Orion,” and “sparking.” In the phrase “swings Orion up” you can feel the gravitational pull in that first stress, on “swings.” And then in the iambic follow-through of “Orion up,” you get the almost physical sensation of hoisting an assemblage (of stars!) to its proper height. The language is simple, the effect beautiful, and the craft-work sure.
Cambridge is tested in laughter and tears but much readier, I think, to laugh than cry. And he has the courage of his convictions. I go to his poems to know what it must be like to shave my head. In “Exposure,” he says:
Shaving your head is to go bare
under the full hot press of sun
frying your baldy scalp; to stop
ducking and feinting behind your hair;
to buzzingly shear all adornment, all
ornament and frippery, present
straightforward you to the world.
. . . It is to bow
your head like an old dog
for a lover to dome your brow
in her cool palms, knowing the bloody
pulsing brain beneath. It is
an attempt at honesty, a minor
variety of courage; to be
a hot thin soil for rain.
The poem is held together by formal elements without being fussy. In the first stanza, “bare” calls to “hair,” making the same sound but conveying the opposite condition. And they both nod to “shear.” Then, closer together, in lines 5 and 6, we have “adornment,” “ornament,” and “present.” Further down, “bow” calls to “brow” and “bloody” echoes “honesty” and “to be.” The lines are sonically knit together in a way the delights the ear. His conceit is delightful, too. Cambridge equates his shaved head with an absence of frippery and ornament. Presto! An ars poetica conjured from a baldy scalp! Why not? His poems are free of frippery and ornament, if by those words we mean poses and high literary effects that smell of the salon. The poems in Cambridge’s book smell like burnt wood, cold winter nights, birds’ eggs pinched from wet nests, and “a hundred thousand grenouilles” under the “stars of France in the spring night air.” There is no affected elegance here, only a genuine elegance in the linguistic operation of almost every line.
I come back to these poems for their fresh, shocking clarity. In “The Herriers,” one of his many bird poems, a boy playing football (soccer) shanks the ball off the pitch into a rough field. He and some of the other boys go to look for the ball and come upon a pheasant’s nest filled with 15 eggs. Astonished and thrilled, they take the eggs. The speaker, looking back on this robbery, considers the mother bird returning to an empty nest:
I went home in triumph with two eggs, my share,
as darkness thickened. Now what I see
is the female pheasant making
her delicate way, by instinct, back
under the spiny sprays to her fifteen eggs of air.
This is finely rendered, sad, and unsentimental. Cambridge makes no excuse for his urge as a boy to collect birds’ eggs (he has many poems on this theme), but at the same time he acknowledges indirectly that a wrong has been committed. He doesn’t say he did anything bad, but he makes you feel it in the image of the returning mother bird “making / her delicate way, by instinct, back / under the spiny sprays” to a desolate nest. The quality that makes these lines memorable is not some linguistic firework display but the lovely arrangement of syntax and its attendant alliteration: “the female pheasant making / her delicate way, by instinct, back.” There is something almost tragic in the way “by instinct” creeps in between “way” and “back.” It is a deft little reminder that it is we who think the bird will be “sad,” whereas in herself she is a bird driven by instinct, even as she makes her way “delicately” through the grass. Just as the phrase “by instinct” separates “way” from “back,” it also separates the pheasant as a creature from the human emotions we interpolate. At the end of this poem, the pheasant comes to seem like something uncorrupted and otherworldly. Cambridge has looked long and hard at birds, in life and in poetry, and knows how to avoid cheap emotion.
There is no sadness outdoors, only acceptance and awe, no matter the scale. Describing Shell Beach on the isolated island of Eigg in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, Cambridge refutes Matthew Arnold and his “eternal note of sadness” from Dover Beach. For Cambridge:
There is no sadness
in it. Shell shingle—
the crunch and crackle
under your boots
in the swash of tides,
a billion husks becoming
. . . Look—
that it will never
recur as now
is hardly a thought
for grief. Festival
of the brilliant changes,
a vivid cemetery
where no one mourns
for the shining massacre
of every tide.
Cambridge is comfortable with both the beauty and the harshness of the natural world. He is not overly concerned about Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith. The indifference of the ocean as it grinds a billion shells into sand is “hardly a thought / for grief.” It is, rather, a “Festival / of the brilliant changes” and a “shining massacre” that no one mourns. This isn’t just a touché to Arnold. It also alludes to Eigg’s history. According to local legend, in the late sixteenth century much of the island’s population was massacred in violent clashes between warring clans. On the south coast of the island is a site called Massacre Cave, where much of the bloodshed is said to have occurred. Like his pheasant, Cambridge steps lightly through this historical material, wearing the sandals of the poet, not the construction boots of the academic.
In a sequence called “Light Leaves (I),” he writes on the decline and death of his father and approaches closer perhaps than any contemporary poet I know to the heights attained by Seamus Heaney in “Clearances,” about the death of Heaney’s mother. In the tenth and final poem of Cambridge’s sequence, he speaks to his father’s love of miniature trains rather than refer directly to his death:
My father’s toy trains were his birds.
Down the years, as we grew,
the models got smaller. Finally
he was down to the smallest size they made
to fit the space he was lift with. Mini-gauge.
Dainty wee things. Even I could admire
their fine engineering, their primary colours,
their unexpected heft for things so small.
Reassuringly solid. Round and round they went with a buzz
through the miniature land he’d fashioned, fitted
with little bushes, trees, and look—
drip this oil in the tiny funnel and the train
would puff out smoke! I find it here,
that made-up stab at a perfect world,
a destination of finished care.
So the poet salutes his father’s “stab at a perfect world” and describes in loving detail the world of the train set, a reassuring “destination of finished care.” That phrase points movingly in two directions. The train-set world was a destination for the old man’s mind while he was alive, a place that he caringly finished and made good. But the phrase also points toward death, the father’s final destination, where all cares are finished.
The long poem “Light Up Lanarkshire,” in the middle of the book, is about coal mining in South Lanarkshire and draws on family stories told by the poet’s paternal grandfather. An occasional poem, it was commissioned by the South Lanarkshire Council to celebrate a project, Light Up Lanarkshire, to illuminate various public buildings in the area, one of which was the Miners’ Memorial. Very much a poem about light, including the potential light that inheres in coal, it squares with the book’s overall theme. It also gives Cambridge reason to revel in the names of different types of coal, “for coals had their names as families did, / according to character and the depth at which they were found.” And oh the names! Upper Coals, Ell Coals, Pyotshaw, Main Coals, Splint and Cannel, Virtuewell, Kiltongue, and Upper and Lower Drumgray. Because he can connect these names and places organically with his own family history, the poem gains an emotional depth that is usually absent in official, commissioned work.
Notes for Lighting a Fire is Cambridge’s third book of poems (not counting several other books he has written that bring together nature photography, prose, and poems intermixed). It was preceded by Madame Fi Fi’s Farewell in 2003. Given that stretch of nine years
without a collection, one infers that Cambridge probably cares more for quality than quantity—not surprising for so careful a workman as he. In Madame Fi Fi, Cambridge dwelt upon his relationships with women and the trickeries of Eros. It was notable, like his new book, for its careful craft, but also for its unabashed treatment of earthy, sexual themes and an infatuation with the “otherness of women.” His new book has moved on from this. The speaker in Notes for Lighting a Fire has the clarity of one who is sobered and chastened but is still a caretaker of the beauties of the earth. For Cambridge, sexuality and love of the natural world go hand in hand.
It is a convention, alas, to find fault with something when reviewing a book. All I can find fault with here are a few occasions when Cambridge overindulges in Scottish dialect words like “glaurlight,” “kirkyard,” “sherricking,” or “blintering” (who can blame him) or when he puts in proximity ingenious word-pairings like “striplit kitchen silence,” and “the spacefrost dark.” Both phrases are striking in isolation, but when they come too close together, it can be too much.
When this book came out in early 2012, I saw no mention of it in the U.S. literary journals. It came to me quietly, alone, in the mail, because I had purchased it directly from Gerry Cambridge. It came to me in a flat, brown box. No fanfare. Just a really good book. The poems here are like the fire he lights in the title poem. They are a source of light and warmth around which we can sit to hear true things said well, while behind us the cold night is kept at bay. I had not meant to write this review, but it would have been a crime not to.