There is a strong sense of a North Atlantic connection running through the work of British writer and artist Nancy Campbell, who often explores how remote communities live with their environment, from the Scottish borders through Denmark to Iceland and the farthest reaches of Greenland. We are united by water and what it contains, she says.
»I am a poet. I am writing about Aua, the
who is bound to the water, as I am
bound to him by hunger.
I hear him pass my door, destined for the harbour.«
These lines are the last in »The Night Hunter«, a poem weaving like a song through repeated lines and words to tell its tale. Like many that appear in »Disko Bay«, a recent collection of the work of Nancy Campbell, it bears a Greenlandic title alongside its English one:
»Nakuarsuuvoq«, almost inviting us to taste the unfamiliar tones of a language that seems to be, in its very nature, embedded with tales of its own.
These tales tell of men and women, young and old, and how they interact with the world that they live in – a world shaped by one of the most extreme weather-bound environments on Earth. They tell both of a spiritual life with deep roots in the landscape and the natural world and a unique understanding of how closely linked we are with the environment we live in.
Much of Nancy Campbell’s work is drawn from artist residencies that have brought her to very remote places that share the connection that they are linked by the North Atlantic. »Disko Bay« takes us from Greenland to Jutland in the Western part of Denmark, and Campbell has also based other work on stays in Iceland as well as her native Northumberland in what she historically refers to as »the Debatable Lands« on the Scottish borders.
The work is often inspired by old traditions of oral storytelling, but is also crafted with a very strong visual sense, not just in the layout of words on the page, but in what the words evoke. In places, it feels as if you can almost taste them and touch them. And this is no coincidence: Nancy Campbell is also a print-maker, and some of her residencies were originally based on visual commissions that somehow ended up infused with words.
This is the case, for instance, with the small community at Doverodde on the Limfjord in Jutland, where a commission for art work turned into a visual display of »Proverbs of Water«, another poem now contained in »Disko Bay«. Campbell ended up putting lines of the poem on different strips of paper tied to bricks, evoking a local tradition of brick-making.
»This was before I really got into Twitter, but you could say that they are probably the length of tweets,« she says.
Denmark is connected with Greenland in more than one way. The poems in »Disko Bay« often remind us of Denmark’s colonial past there, and not always in a positive way, as in »The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun«:
»there are no angels
on the graves of the Danes, who came to
for ivory and sealskin. They eyes
brimmed with darkness«
But at the same time, the poems link the two very different environments of Greenland and Jutland, as if to remind us that when the icebergs melt, the water has to go somewhere. While the Greenland poems are invariably centred around snow and ice, the Jutland ones feature water – water from rain, water from the sea: water that is fished in, and water that floods:
»It’s quiet here. Is it too quiet for you? The
rain is soft as the conversations of coral«
(from »Proverbs of Water«)
Nancy Campbell sees a very strong shared connection in the water that links the different remote communities she has visited, both in terms of a shared heritage of fishing and in the ecological sense.
»Interestingly, one of the artists I met at Doverodde was talking to me about the passage of molluscs between places on the bottoms of ships, and how shells have been discovered in the Limfjord that could only have come from America at a certain period. So I started to think about the crossing points between the North and how I had come from the North East of England and here I was in this place.«
Her work clearly invites the question of whether art can play a role in dealing with the environmental issues faced by the world, and these communities in particular.
»I often ask myself this question: Is there any point in making work about the environment? Can the small amount of awareness I bring make any difference in these catastrophic changes that are already happening? My work is maybe not for other people so much as for me to understand what I have seen and what has happened. But if other people take some message from it, I am happy.«
Audio bite: Hear Nancy Campbell read from Disko Bay and share her thoughts on remote places
Read more on Nancy Campbell’s website
A separate book of her work from Doverodde, which started as a blog, can be found here
Why not also stop by this blog post about poetry: