Reading this collection, I began to question the definition of surrealism. The leaping images in Jen Campbell's poems in The Girl Aquarium seem at times more playfully associative than Freudian. These poems make the wild, imaginative connections of childhood’s make-believe worlds. Though at times they allude to a darker kind of fairy tale than any I've ever read.
Reading through once, for the individual poems, the collection compels me to read again to find all of the details of the narrative, to understand and fully embrace the brokenness and the strength of these girls with equal appreciation.
The collection includes free verse, "formal" verse like list poems and prose poems, and Campbell is a master of utilising internal rhymes and assonance when referencing fairy tales.
From The Doll Hospital:
My mother claimed I had changeling feet
dancing in dirt water pulling a ragged doll
through fairy rings when she summoned me home for tea.
I cup my palms.
I wonder if we should roll her hair like starfish.
Watch it flicker the colour of raspberry-plum.
We hum, take turns. Pirouette
her little body so her organs align like marbled planets.
While five of Campbell’s poems are so rooted in the culture of Northern England they are written in dialect, they hit close to home for this reader. The freak shows and sides shows that conjure up Coney Island and the stained, canvas tents at county fairs across the American heartland. The Girl Aquarium isn’t difficult to imagine:
At half-term the aquarium is at its busiest.
They hire street vendors to come inside and hand out beer.
Candy floss for the kids whose parents don’t care.
The corridors heave with barbecue.
Too damp to strike a match. […]
In the feeding room: girls with extra limbs.
They scuttle into corners, pretend they’re shy.
In the sunroom: girls with beetle eyes.
Iris headbands blinding
at all the mobile phones.
Hashtag nothing you’ve ever seen before in your tiny little life.
A teenage boy bangs the window, gives them the finger.
This collection conjures up the all too familiar atmospheres of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny…
From What the Bearded Lady Told Me:
That between her legs is volcanic.
That men are terrified.
That she loves how terrified they are.
That she likes the sea.
And zoanthropy. Here is a world-full of woman forced into a half-creature existence. From The Woman’s Private Looking Glass:
Take the physician’s advice.
Forget imagination and do not look straight at the moon.
Up there devil-girls cradle silver eggs. They slide
from roller coaster innards, trickle tales
of the greats.
Leda, Lilith, Sirin — all owl-chested women.
And do not peer into the sea; for there salted-tadpoles twist around your organs and turn your body into stone.
This collection was so painful to read, so familiar and so fantastical that I sit back and wonder now how I ever negotiated—much less survived—being a girl. But there is more here. The poetry is infused with the poet’s personal experience with very real physical disabilities. This knowledge forces the reader to interrogate the poems further. The reader has to question the limitations of empathy with regard to experience, has to explore the boundaries between metaphor and metonymy—and even the literal.
These poems left room for me to find myself within the pages. But then they also pulled me out of myself entirely, which is what great poetry does.
JEN CAMPBELL grew up in the northeast of England, and graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in English Literature. She is an established writer of children books and short stores, but The Girl Aquarium is her first poetry collection, published by BloodAxe books in 2019. She has a YouTube channel where she talks about (not surprisingly) fairytales and disfigurement. Her website is jen-campbell.co.uk. Her book is available through Bloodaxe and Amazon.