Jen Campbell’s full-length poetry collection is out from Bloodaxe Books, UK. It is titled The Girl Aquarium. The title poem gave me chills. It is about an aquarium full of girls who aren’t ‘normal’ and people visit them like one would visit a zoo.
In The Girl Aquarium, Campbell challenges us to see the world differently through the lens of her poems. Her opening poem ‘Concerning the principles of human knowledge’ prepares us for the tone of the book. Every poem is handled differently with the placing of words, line-breaks, and language.
Campbell has been transparent about her writing process as a writer on her Youtube channel. She has been vocal about deformity, fairytales and many topics in her videos. It provided me with enough context for her collection. She has spoken about freak shows, deformity in literature, media and how it affects ‘acceptance’ of people with disfigurements. I knew of this because of the shows I watched as a child on Discovery. It made me aware of different conditions that other children might not be exposed to, and I knew that science alters the way we look at things.
In Campbell’s poem ‘The Day We Ran Away from the Circus’ she writes, ‘In this new world, there are forests and duck-feet shoes.’ Duck-feet ‘shoes’ shows acceptance of webbed feet, which could be a reference to EEC Syndrome.
Tessa Fontaine wrote The Electric Woman. It is her memoir of traveling with a sideshow. I loved the book. Tessa also wrote an interesting article for LitHub on the ‘Coney Island sideshow and how incubators came to be.’ I found this article revelatory as I was born premature and if it hadn’t been for the incubators, I wouldn’t have been alive today. It made me think of the term ‘survival of the fittest’ and how science alters that meaning for us. With progress in medicine, we begin to see illnesses and conditions differently. Campbell, through her poems, tries to tell us, ‘Hey, you know a lot, but you still don’t know a lot.’ And this makes you, as a reader, realize how limited we are as humans because of our limited frame of reference. Her poems emphasize on retellings of stories, research, science
Two other poets come to mind when reading Campbell’s poetry: Max Ritvo and Lucy Grealy. Max Ritvo, in his poem ‘Poem to my litter’ in The New Yorker, describes research conducted on mice to find out more about his condition. Lucy Grealy also had Ewing’s Sarcoma like him; it left her with a facial disfigurement. I’m currently reading her book Autobiography of a Face. Her poem ‘Ward 10’ in The Paris Review speaks of her time spent in the hospital and the disturbing scene of her encountering animals that were used for research. Animals also feature in Campbell’s collection.
Also, how do you know I am not a bear? I ask.
Because you’re not, you say. Go to sleep.
I bristle under the duvet, my hot lungs Ursa Major.
The Girl Aquarium, Jen Campbell
Campbell shows us through her poems that what we consider ‘normal’ is only because of the limited knowledge we have. She redefines ‘abnormal’ for us. In some of her poems, there is a union of all the four elements like air, water, earth, and fire. Take the first part from her poem-
The Day We Ran Away from the Circus
The sky fell
we fell into the sky
the sun was.
The Girl Aquarium, Jen Campbell
Water is a dominant feature in the collection. Campbell, in her bio mentions that she grew up by the sea. Bahrain, where I grew up, is an island and most of the land is reclaimed land and made me think of my connection with water too. Water also made me think of gender fluidity. In her poem ‘What the bearded lady told me’ gives you a glimpse into the mind of the bearded lady. Here she is confiding in one of her own. And these lines show you how the world treats people based on what they know of ‘gender’. “That she’s never been called girl./ That the word girl sounds like a type of tree to her.”
Overall there is a ‘welcome’ feeling when reading these poems. That is Campbell’s narrators are welcoming, but they also make you uncomfortable thinking about how rigid the world is and that it doesn’t allow much room for the inclusion of people who don’t ‘fit’ in a box. This book is not for those with closed minds, or maybe it is exactly the book they need to read. The book ends with ‘newborn feet’. It is not an ending but a beginning of new thinking.
Campbell shows the reader the meaning of creativity; to think out of the box, think fluid. The whole book is like one flowing river; a magical river. Please stop by and take a sip from it. It will change the way you see the world and yourself.
Jen Campbell is an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her debut short story collection ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ is published by Two Roads and her first children’s book ‘Franklin’s Flying Bookshop’ is published by Thames & Hudson. She is also the Sunday Times bestselling author of the ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ series and ‘The Bookshop Book.’ Her poetry collection ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival’ is published by The Rialto and she won an Eric Gregory Award in 2016. She talks about all things books at youtube.com/jenvcampbell
Michelle D Costa is a cinephile and bibliophile from Bahrain. She has poetry and prose published in various journals like Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Eclectica, The Sunflower Collective, Guftugu, Vayavya, The Bombay Literary Magazine, and more. She loves to interview writers and runs the ezine Kaani.