Miriam Gamble's Nature
As the John Hewitt International Summer School continues, the poet discusses her latest collection, The Squirrels Are Dead
The epigraph that appears in Miriam Gamble’s collection of poetry The Squirrels Are Dead, is a quote from Scottish writer, Iain Crichton Smith. It asks a tantalising question: 'And what after all could I have done for him even / if I had been able to communicate with him?'
Taken out of context, these lines suggest an even bigger series of questions, all of which run to the essential nature of communication, or more accurately, lack of communication.
'Inarticulacy' is the word Gamble uses to describe the overarching theme of the poetry in her latest collection. One poem, 'Anatomy of a Stetson', is inspired by the Heath Ledger character in the film Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx.
Ledger’s character Ennis Del Mar is unable to talk about his interior life, imprisoned as he is by an external life in which physical action matters more than words or even feelings. The poem describes a Stetson hat, the way the leather wavers here and there like a cleft heart or a petal holding rainfall, and is expressive of Gamble’s fascination with this failure of communication. It ends with lines telling of the fate of the hat: 'He has hung it on a rusty nail, / gone bare and brimming to the world.'
As well as hats, horses also feature heavily in the film, and are implied (though not specifically named) in Gamble’s poem. This is no accident. Horses have always been part of the poet's life, and they appear elsewhere in her work.
At a reading two years ago in Aberdeen organised by Dublin’s Wurm im Apfel poetry collective, Gamble read 'Ghosts', a poem inspired by a painting of a horse she spotted in an unobtrusive place at a writer’s and artist’s retreat.
Gamble noticed that the shape of the animal was that of a racing thoroughbred, clearing a fence as though held in position by a rider, though the rider was not pictured. In all of her poetry, one gets a sense that above all, Gamble is a poet who notices things that others cannot.
The title of her first collection comes from a line in one of the poems, Twilight in Brompton Cemetery, in which squirrels are the focus. In it, a first-person narrator describes feeding them, even though (or perhaps because) they are hunting them from the city:
To east-coast seaboard, those ordinary lovers
whose each small, individualistic tread –
a whorl, a tail kinked like a helix –
originated in a pair brought, sniffing the air with wonder,
fresh from the Americas
for the entertainment of incredulous women.
Such nature-driven descriptive passages are woven into Gamble’s poetry, as though she has allowed herself to re-imagine the scripts of the David Attenborough nature programmes with which she was once obsessed.
A poem directly inspired by one of those documentaries is 'Arctic Fox', which begins as an affectionate tribute to a fox, identified by the feminine pronoun and almost lovingly described repeatedly in lines beginning with the words 'she is'.
At the end of the piece, however – in the same way an Attenborough film will suddenly reveal an animal’s necessary nature – Gamble tightens the tone, and describes the fox snatching a gosling from a nest, 'its soft pulse beating rhythms'.
Rhythm is important to Gamble, and is almost certainly one of the things that drives any revisions she makes in her poems. The differences between the printed text of the Arctic Fox poem in the collection, and the text of a reading she gave for the Seamus Heaney Centre some years ago, are mainly to do with tightening the pulse of the lines and creating a leaner logic to the meter of the poem.
Gamble’s first poetic inspiration came from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and also the early work of Derek Mahon. Her own poetry displays a fluidity of line coupled with rich vocabulary which, while sophisticated, does not get in the way of that flow. She is notably at ease with form.
When I ask her how she begins to write, and what inspires her, I get a sense that inspiration is not a problem, and that writing is enjoyable and cathartic for her. 'In a good poem you discover things about yourself you didn’t know before.'
Nevertheless, Gamble hasn’t been able to write a great deal lately, partly due to her teaching commitments at the University of Edinburgh. 'It’s difficult to find the mental space for writing,' she comments. 'You need secrecy and a turf that’s your own.'
Gamble does have another collection coming out soon, which is good news for readers of poetry. It differs inevitably from the work that has gone before. 'I'm not a writer that probes the same thing again and again, for example. There are no sequences in the first collection. There are connections between the poems, but they aren't straightforwardly thematic.'
She clearly feels a sense of development in her work, which will be evident in the new book. 'If I were to always write poems that are recognisable as Miriam Gamble poems, life wouldn’t be very interesting. Writers need to develop.'
Although she admits to feeling a more acute sense of being from Northern Ireland since moving to Edinburgh, Gamble doesn’t identify herself as a ‘regional’ poet. 'Each poem is a new event for me,' she says, while acknowledging that her work 'is conditioned by the aesthetic of Northern Irish poets that have gone before'.
Poems like 'Tinkerness (in Memory of George Best)', 'Spring in Belfast' and 'The Charming Nancy' have an obvious Northern Irish resonance, but there are a great many more influences than that in the first collection and no doubt, in the second. Perhaps there is an unintended whisper of things to come in 'Taking Corners', the final poem of The Squirrels Are Dead, in which she writes:
...I lean from darkness
Into the light; from mess to measure;
from (pull the curtains, love!) puzzle to clue.
Miriam Gamble read at the John Hewitt International Summer School at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh on July 30. The summer school runs from July 28 to August 1. Visit the John Hewitt Society website for more information.