How to be happy though human by Kate Camp
How to be happy though human is Kate Camp’s seventh poetry collection.
Published here by VUP and simultaneously in Canada and the US by Anasai Press, it includes new and selected poems from her previous six collections.
Camp is an established force in the Aotearoa poetry scene, racking up an impressive array of awards for her writing, most notably the 2011 Creative New Zealand Writer’s Residency in Berlin and the 2017 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow.
In the title piece of the collection Camp writes, ‘Memory is a kind of mourning.’ A theme she returns out throughout, writing in the poem ‘Civil Twilight’: ‘I look surprisingly human/ with my long face and memories.’
While the title itself is found language, it captures Camp’s interest in
honing in on the infinite ordinariness of life as a human, continually asking us to question and notice the peculiarity of our existence, how we exist clumsily alongside the natural world in all its beauty and confusion and within it, how we find joy. Her incisive command of language compels us forward, a droll humour always flickering beneath.
We need to accept that the world
is more intelligent than we are.
Like leaves on a tree we are something amazing
that behaves in predictable ways.
(From ‘The Internet of things.’)
The first section of How to be happy though human contains Camp’s newest poems and they spring with her usual cleverness and tautness of language, but there is a lightness, a kind of gentle distance. While they are not in themselves nostalgic, there is an awareness that they arrive, as the poet herself does, after all that come before them. Overall, they draw together the threads of Camp’s past works and reflect this new frontier she is entering. On encountering a man from her past she writes:
He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.
I’m not shocked. Inside me are the Russian dolls
of the women and girls I’ve been before
each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.
(From ‘One train may hide another.’)
The next section goes back to her first book, and the sections follow in chronological order, giving them a kind of reverse Russian Doll feel as we dive back into the past, knowing that ultimately we will come full circle to a kind of haunted peace:
but you can make a home
just about anywhere
even your own hand
when you hold it over your mouth
because you’re starting to cry.
And from ‘Antimony’:
Like the woman at the front of the ship
I have everything in front of me
and everything behind me.
For new and old readers of Camp’s poetry there is much to delight in How to be happy though human. The best poems shift, asking us to question the everyday, the ordinary, while sparking new ways of seeing, and Camp delivers this in spades.
Reviewed by Heidi North
Published by VUP