I WILL KEEP MY SOUL BREATHES THROUGH ITS SKIN
Helen Cammock, I Will Keep My Soul, Siglio/Rivers Institute/CAAM, 2023
Reviewed by Elizabeth Zuba
If Helen Cammock's new book I Will Keep My Soul were an animal, it would be a jellyfish. And not just because it is mesmerizingly and corporeally oceanic, though it is that—ebbing and funneling a fluid and scintillant body of poetry, historical document, archival and contemporary photography, drawings, interviews, essays, music and collage, with the history and community of New Orleans as its waters. But because it breathes through its skin. Necessarily. Anatomically. Like a jellyfish
But even "through its skin," doesn't really do justice to the whole diffuse respiratory process, it's more like "by" its skin, in that the skin of jellyfish is their breathing apparatus; inasmuch as they wash through the oxygen, the oxygen washes through them. In other words, their breath is their skin is their body is their environment—the outer inner and the inner outer. For better or for worse, skin and breath and environment (and the history of that environment: nanoplastics? marine heat wave?) are a single living entity. There is no dividing them.
Which is what I think Cammock means when she writes, "Today I felt some kind of diminutive/not small but somehow a part of something else that I hadn't really touched before." Only Cammock isn't talking about skin and breath and ambient water, she's talking about skin and breath and ambient history, specifically Black American history and the legacy of racism and violent oppression, but also joy and art and genius, which we breathe and which breathes us—right now, all the time, systematically, bodily. (Something that she "hadn't really touched before" because Cammock is British, of Jamaican and English heritage, belonging to a history-environment that is simultaneously different from, diffuse to, and the same as our own.) The project's title takes its name from the words of a Freedom Rider who, in response to prison guards threatening to take his mattress, shouts, "Come and get my mattress. I will keep my soul."
Water, like the soul, reigns in I Will Keep My Soul, and not just because it evokes the geography and history of New Orleans, but because diffusion, or "seepage" to use her word, is the foundation of Cammock's practice. Beginning with archival materials (for this book, at the Amistad Research Center), Cammock follows the memory of materials as they sink and shift back toward the living, filtering and draining between time and space, objects and people, responses and silences. In Cammock's hands, the soul we keep, what you might call our living breath, glimmers in the movement between.
Flexible and tactile, and woven with extensible foldouts and undulating layers of transparent prints that obscure and reveal its many subjects and artifacts, I Will Keep My Soul filters through marching bands and parades, Civil Rights murders and gentrification, Creole slave songs and magical realism, personal letters and Angela Davis, prodigy musicians and the Mississippi, and many, many, so many voices. It shifts; it washes; it arrests—it breathes.
Among the voices of correspondents and writers in the book are contributors Jordan Amirkhani and Kristina Kay Robinson, whom Cammock has invited to join her living-historical chorus. Both Robinson's magical fiction and Amirkhani's lush "concrete" essay refract and dazzle in dislocations of time and place, constituting further the non-linear and non-discrete purchase of history. Perhaps the most present voice in the book, besides Cammock's own, belongs to the late sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, whose bronze monument to Louis Armstrong and observations on agency, autonomy and freedom, slip through the pages with tentacular air.
But it is Cammock's voice, specifically her poetry, that quietly and powerfully threads together the oceanic body of I Will Keep My Soul. Drifting wide across the page, Cammock's epistolary and imagery-rich poems investigate between-spaces: between the I and you, between the living and dead, between document and art, between who is speaking and who is listening.
One afternoon we have our first meeting
The wind blows cold in the chill of yesterday but I feel
The tepid breath whispered tones delicately calling me to bend an ear drop down low
to reach across ocean until page upon picture
picture upon ink
I'm with you
Held by your gaze in locked cadence that swells and pulses
more on some days than others because you are gone or I am tired or we simply can't connect through the box I pore over
wrangle with hands clumsy limbs knocking chair then table invisible bruise on brown skin invisible bruises on brown skin
Cammock pulls you under into the dark unknown depths of collective and personal memory and releases you quietly, gently, to the tide. Corroborating Dickinson's "Tell all the truth but tell it slant—," "Truth" is rarely discrete, singular, or linearly interpretable: it dazzles "gradually/or every man be blind—." In I Will Keep My Soul, Cammock ebbs toward what blinds us and to what we are blind, investigates how the smaller, disparate elements echo and locate and point us a little closer toward the wordless forces of Existence and Meaning that surround and silently define us. In other words, poetry is a necessary extension of Cammock's fluid and refractive archival practice. Indeed, in many ways, I Will Keep My Soul is a book of poetry; one that uses a syllabary unconfined to the linguistic, and necessarily threads image and document with connectivity, uncertainty, silence, and breath.
Take for example the fold-out of a series of breathtaking contemporary photographs of a Black man perched powerfully, noiselessly in a tree along the Mississippi that echo a sister foldout several pages before, of newspaper clippings documenting the savage murder of three Civil Rights workers and the disposal of their bodies in the same river; on the reverse side, Cammock writes:
Matters that matter
Matters that were shared and others not
But in every way
The matters lead to a notion of tree climbing
The taking of risk
The testing of strength
Even the physiology of human skin, with our sweating and absorbent pores, makes for a good reminder of how little division exists between the outer and inner, the world and the self—a barrier more imagined than anatomic. But of course, it is the color of our skin that has so long constituted and constitutes our human breath, washing in the machinations of racism and hate that define so much of our environments. Setting us afloat in our own history and present, I Will Keep My Soul collapses, expands, breathes.