Miriam Gamble was born in Brussels in 1980 and grew up in Belfast. She belongs to Northern Ireland’s ‘post ceasefire’ generation, and her poems evoke both Belfast and Ireland with honesty and affection. However, they also posses a broader and more universal appeal, displaying a deft sense of rhythm, an impressive formal competence and an original slant on the world. As Sinéad Morrissey puts it: “Alert to the possibilities of alien consciousness and aware simultaneously, of our human perception, the poems [. . .] explore, dissect, muse on, re-imagine and puncture ‘the disparities of life as we know it’ with fleet intelligence and consummate skill”.
Miriam Gamble is a graduate of both Oxford and Queens University Belfast. In 2007 she won an Eric Gregory Award for her recently-published pamphlet with Tall-lighthouse entitled This Man’s Town. Her first full-length collection, The Squirrels are Dead, followed from Bloodaxe in 2010. It’s a highly impressive debut, technically assured and thematically wide-ranging. The book is littered with engagingly personal poems that exhibit a crisp power of recall, a tender cherishing of memory and an appealing, off-beat sense of humour.
Gamble’s lines are beautifully wrought and exhibit both control and a finely-tuned rhythmical awareness. Throughout The Squirrels are Dead her mastery of traditional form seems natural and unforced as she displays what seems an intuitive facility with sonnet, sestina and villanelle.
Miriam Gamble’s manages to suffuse contemporary life with an enviable sense of mystery. In poem after poem we see her elevate the so-called ‘everyday’ to the extraordinary. This is nowhere more evident than in the powerful, vivid imagery she deploys in her explorations of the natural world. ‘Artic Fox’, for instance, memorably depicts its titular animal:
She is sufferer
and egg-thief, balancing huge shells in dainty jaws.
Scavenger and saviour, delivering what she catches
to yelping mouths, she is assault and
repeatedassault, the tireless cycles of return.
And she is greed caught in the act: five, six,
seven yellow goslings crammed in her maw
at the same time, spilling and evading her -
she can’t make up her mind, she wants them all!
Yet this is a poet who also deals with both mythical and historical events, applying to these narratives a quiet, unfolding wonder and a first-rate intelligence. In her debut we find poems on the flaying of Marsyas, the death of footballer George Best (himself surely by now a semi-mythical persona), on Captain Cook's voyages and on the husband of the 19th century’s most famous ‘bearded lady’. Such wide-ranging forays into myth and history blend with and enhance her more personal concerns.
She is a most intertextual poet, making frequent reference to other writers in her titles, epigraphs or first lines. Yet she does so in a manner that seems genuinely thought-provoking rather than knowing and pretentious. Indeed, throughout The Squirrels are Dead we get the sense of a poet engaging with the very stuff of language itself, as in the following poem on the semi-colon, reproduced here in its entirety:
You criticise my use of the semi-colon;
I, bridled, take offence.
There it is, huddled between us still like a boundary line.
Two parts of the the same sentence
are riven by it, or it mingles sentences,
self-sealed, that share something in common.
Winker, weeper, sat on the fence,
it’s articulate of all that’s ill-defined.
Gamble currently teaches at the University of Edinburgh and a second collection, entitled Pirate Music, will be published by Bloodaxe next year. Michael Longley has said of her poetry: “She looks like the real thing all right”. Read her and I'm sure you'll agree.
The Squirrels Are Dead, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, 2010
Gamble’s page at Bloodaxe Books
Gamble interviewed by Kate Dempsey at Writing.ie
Profile of Gamble at Café Babel