Review: Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit - Jen Campbell
Published: Bloodaxe Books, September 2023
My Rating: 5/5 stars, potential new all-time favourite
<I>"The hospital is not a place for bodies…"</i>
It’s been a long time since I’ve last reviewed a poetry collection, because I frankly I’m not all that good at it. For this one though, I’m making an exception, as it’s one of my favourite things I’ve read this year, so it wouldn’t feel right to stay completely quiet about that.
Reviewing poetry, in many ways, is more like reviewing music than it is reviewing fiction. It’s so hard to explain <i>why</i> something works or doesn’t work for you. The words either hit the note, or they don’t. They strike the chord you wanted them to, or they don’t. For me, Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit was a composition that resonated on so many levels. From its major chords; its sense of playful wonder, and its allusions to the sea and mythology. To its minor ones; the deep reverberating themes of disability, and its effects on growing from a girl to a woman (to a mother); from which I felt the hum of recognition in my bones.
I’ve been a fan of Jen Campbel for years now, exactly because of the way she covers these themes, within her own writing but also her content of Youtube. In that strange parasocial way that authors (and nowadays, online content creators) can, she’s had a big impact on my own journey towards coping with my own (childhood-) illness and subsequent disability.
This collection feels like some of her most personal work, and is my favourite to date. It juggles illness, (dis-)ability and agency of body through girlhood into womanhood. It covers childlike wonder, childhood trauma, complex longing and a desperate plea at the doors of the Kingdom of Motherhood.
I <i>want</i> to recommend this collection to everyone, but can’t help feeling it would be a bit like recommending my favourite song to someone else. They may enjoy the beat, the melody, or the lyrics, but they won’t share the same connection to it that I felt, because they didn’t share “that specific experience when I first heard it, that made it special to me.” Then again, it just might… If you liked Jen’s previous work, or the likes of Kirsty Logan, Polly Atkin, Sinéad Gleeson, Rebekah Taussig (I’m probably forgetting a million more): this might be of a similar tune.
On a final, possibly slightly spoilery note; when I first heard the title, I didn’t understand or like it. Then, after reading the freakshow-poems and landing on the titular one, I felt a literal lump in my throat when I grasped its significance. As a fellow “child of the freak-show”, gosh darn, there’s a plea I made a number of times…
Stand-out poems: The Hospital is Not My House, When I Revisit This Room I Want to Leave Again, The Trees Are Part of the Process, Alopecia, Common Side Effects, The Hospital is Not Big Enough for Two of Us (darn that final one got me good).
You can find this book here on Goodreads.