Book review: Snow White’s Coffin by Kate Camp

cv_snow whites coffinThis book is in bookstores now

Snow White’s Coffin is the latest collection from one of New Zealand’s best known poets, Kate Camp. Camp has published four previous collections of poetry, and this latest book was written in Berlin while she held the Creative New Zealand Berlin residency. The book is sectioned into two parts, with a short first section and an extended second section.

The back cover gives no hint of the book’s contents, but a Rilke quote at the beginning suggests the collection deals with themes of inadequacy and uncertainty in the face of love and death. With only that and the title to inform me, I approached the book as though it was a modern retelling of Snow White. As you may have guessed, there are no Disney princesses in this collection, but the book certainly calls to mind the Grimm fairy tale, with axes falling, snow on the ground, poison, death, and avoidance of death.

Camp’s writing style is conversational, while also being lyrical. I’ve always enjoyed the way her poems turn gothic and somewhat mysterious. In many poems I can’t say exactly what’s happening, but I know that I like it; I want to keep reading. While most poems don’t explicitly reference Berlin, they have a certain austere quality that makes me think of Eastern Europe (and made me wonder if the lacking cover design was meant to evoke a  traditional German aesthetic).

Many poems seem to be about the ordinariness of a creative life, from which springs extraordinary ideas. The notes section at the back shows that Camp was influenced by the work of other poets, and also, I think, the experience and idea of translation; both of Camp’s work into German, but also the translation of her life to another culture for a year. Like, as one poem says, “snow in Hawai’i.”

From the first page you can tell you’re in the hands of a skilled poet. There are many wow moments, with poems such as “The loneliest ol’ song in the world,” “There is no easy way,” and “Everybody has to be somewhere.” Camp’s deft imagery provides new ways of looking at the world. For example, from “The sea is dark and we are told it’s deep”:

Inside these caverns dark and bloody only one man goes
with pickaxe and leather kit he tunnels
to produce the loudest man-made sound on the planet.
Earth flies like terrified geese

Or the opening of “Everything is a clock”:

Across the floor she went
it was made up of sawed-up trees
and patterned with the places branches grew.

My favourite poems were those that described how we live within things: beds, buildings, the atmosphere, our own ideas of ourselves; the stories we carry around about ourselves. These poems are aware of the world built by our own human hands, but also by our imaginations. In this sense, the title of the collection actually refers to a 1956 German radiogramme—an old fashioned piece of furniture that combines a radio and record player—that was known as “Snow White’s Coffin.” The radiogramme seems to symbolise how we record our lives, as well as the idea of the past and the future clashing together. For me, this idea of collision is the quiet social commentary at the centre of the collection. Maybe the collection is Camp’s version of a magic mirror?

This is not a book than can be breezed through in an hour. It’s a stunning collection that sustains voice and pressure throughout, which is no small feat. It takes (and deserves) effort and concentration to read, but the beauty of the language and mystery in the poems make it more than worthwhile.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Snow White’s Coffin
by Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, 2013
ISBN 9780864738882