A review of chaucer cameron’s pamphlet, ‘in an ideal world i’d not be murdered’

‘In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered’

Photograph by Louisa Campbell

Chaucer Cameron

Against the Grain Poetry Press   £6.00

Explorations of the sex trade are expected to include the sort of realism usually referred to by television critics as ‘gritty’ or ‘hard-hitting’, and there’s plenty of that in this newly published pamphlet by Chaucer Cameron: for example, in ‘Erotic’, the narrator says: ‘Sodomised/ they called it/ but I don’t/ remember details./ The papers said/ no underwear,/ reported every/ action/ as erotic’, while in ‘I Will Leave You For A Moment While I Trade’, the reader is given a glimpse of how the inconvenience of a period might be handled in a doorway while waiting for the next punter.

These details act as a foil for matter-of-fact and shocking lines, such as ‘I know the rules: no names, no dates, just numbers’ and ‘beneath this rose tattoo – a barcode – ’. Almost all the women and girls inhabiting these poems are identified by little more than their first name, speciality, and occasionally fate. This dispassionate approach reaches its apogee in the poem ‘Coup de Maître’, in which the dressing of a crab is used as a metaphor for the consumption of a sex worker, and is described from the point of view of methodical punter possessed of a cold, psychopathic detachment.

There’s also a strand of surrealism running through these poems, and this gives them a sudden depth, to the point where the reader, wrong-footed, finds themself frantically treading water. In the startling opening poem, ‘128 Farleigh Road’, a client, or maybe a pimp, is found dead at the foot of a staircase, and a strange, dislocated intimacy is engendered:

‘But here we are, just he and I gazing at each other

The way dead people do when caught together intimately.’

This sensation of being removed from an experience as it is happening is familiar to anyone who’s been trapped in an abusive situation, and a sustained incidence of dissociation is brilliantly captured in the poem ‘Cartoons’: 

‘It’s funny what you think of/ when you’re gagging/ for your life

when you hear the car doors/ click/ …

Tonight/ it was the Flintstones/ I watched them as a kid … ’

Often these forays into surrealism prevent the reader from being entirely sure of what’s happening. You think you know where a poem’s going, but there are layers of doubt and ambiguity, and it could all turn out a lot worse than you want to imagine. This reflects the situation the poems’ subjects find themselves in, with little to no control of what will happen next, or even whether they will survive their current job. In ‘Love’, one woman, Ash, holds off a stab wound with a laugh that becomes increasingly animalistic and dehumanised, while in the title poem, Crystal announces: ‘I refuse to compromise my safety,’, as she is in the process of ‘inviting strangers back to her room’ and, a line later, adds ‘there’s a safety in jeopardy, ain’t there?’ ‘She was lucky’, the narrator tells us, ‘never murdered, she understood erasure, turned it into/ artforms, pinned it to the walls’.

As this title suggests, there are moments of humour to be found in these poems too, although inevitably it’s dark. Much of it comes from Crystal, who ‘often throws in random facts’, is ‘always wanting the story’, and is one of the few women we become acquainted with, if passingly. Another woman, Trixie, declares:

            ‘I’m a work of art, I’m a sex magnet

            just look at these, she said

            as she pulled down her begonias

            from the shelf – ’

However, such interludes of apparent levity are always tempered by what comes next. Trixie, it turns out, is a child, not a woman, and in the following poem, a punter, who claims he adores her, unashamedly details the way he exploits and degrades her. 

In an interview with Abegail Morley of Against the Grain Press, Chaucer Cameron has said it took her thirty years to have sufficient emotional distance to write these poems. I, for one, am profoundly grateful she has, and that the song sung by Canary Wharf in the final poem of the collection is, for her at least, one of emphatic survival.  

Deborah Harvey

This review was first published in April 2021 by London Grip.

Chaucer Cameron is a former member of one of the Leaping Word poetry groups, and we are delighted everyone now has the chance to read this important work.

The Watching Place

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This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It’s on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. It’s also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case.

The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise. Then there’s the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.

My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner’s Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.

Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.

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Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock, food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect.

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And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death. I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry, and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.

And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel, and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers’ Tamar Books imprint.

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I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu … avian flu … SARS … We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world? Then I opened it and flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It’s all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.

There’s even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn’t have known that. And besides it’s fleas they should mostly have been avoiding.

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Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I’m reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they’ve always been. We’re all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.

If you’d like to read an extract of ‘Dart’, please click on this link.

Cover illustration and map by Dru Marland

 

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

 

 

The Shadow Factory

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The arrival and ritual opening of a box of newly published books is always an exciting moment. And this time we were especially pleased to see that the printers had padded the cargo with paper rather than bubble wrap.

The Shadow Factory is our Deb’s fourth poetry collection from Indigo Dreams Publishing, and its evocative title is straight out of her childhood in 1960s Bristol. ‘As a young girl I was fascinated by the rollsign of the 98 bus that gave its destination as The Shadow Factory,’ she explains, ‘but as the stop we had to get off at came before the terminus, I never got to see it, and an intimation of certain disappointment prevented me from asking what was made there. As a result, The Shadow Factory became a warehouse of wishes and unrealised dreams, a metaphor for life and death, and eventually this collection of poems that explore childhood, memory and the twilight of those household gods we call parents.’

Other poets have had complimentary things to say about our new addition.

Pascale Petit, who awarded the poem Oystercatchers 1st prize in the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem competition says: Every word is weighted. Although nothing is explicit, something important is being enacted, and the epigraph by Camus adds an anchor, so that we guess his are the words being taken to the sea and released from the heart. I kept coming back to this and getting more from it.’

And in her sensitive review, poetry film maker and novelist Lucy English says ‘The desire to find a place which is ‘not a leisurely stroll from the ice cream van,’ is a strong theme in this collection. [Harvey] comments on the natural world as if this, and not human life is the greater force … Landscape, animals and birds have an intrinsic beauty which she describes with care.’

To read a selection of the poems from The Shadow Factory, please click here.

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