I’ve been carrying this pamphlet by Niall Campbell around in my bag for a couple of weeks. Lyrical, reflective, deft – and strong enough to take me away completely from a crowded train or ticket queue. In the title poem, a description of old creel-rope:
The frayed lengths knotting into ampersands
tell of this night, and this night, and this,
spent taut between the surface and the sea-floor –
the water coarsening each coiled blue fibre
Many of the poems draw me in because they hold something mysterious which calls to be examined, not logically but by process of association. It’s hard to decide on verses to quote out of the five of the last poem, ‘North Atlantic Drift’. Here are the first two:
We lay together in a run bath
and thought over the rowing boat
that neither one was rowing,
the evening berthed at the bath side
with its vowel song and habit
of staying with us for a while.
The language is simple, there’s a lilting rhythm, the lovely bath/evening/boat metaphor is slightly disorientating, and the skilful line- and verse-breaks have a mesmerising effect. The mind falls down the page, half-asleep, jolting from one stanza/thought to the next. (Is that last sentence worthy of Pseuds’ Corner? I can’t think of a plainer way of putting it.) You can read an earlier draft of this poem at Northwards Now, along with a few others, not all in the pamphlet.
Campbell’s line breaks give his poems an electrical charge. Maybe that’s why I found the two prose poems less effective, though I enjoyed the one that creates a god for each Scottish city. Several poems include a line or two of description that gets an inner Yes!
..ram’s wool flagged on a neighbour’s fence
from ‘Smultronstället, Glendale’ (the first word turns out to be Swedish for wild strawberries, the title of the Bergman film, and more than that); or this from ‘Advice’:
and this empty Guinness glass
banded like a soil sample.
Its lines of sediment,
now thick, now thin, now thinner:
a calendar of our ways,
our weather, our damned chance.
Those moments of our flood,
those moments of our drought.
The assured, almost proverbial tone of those last lines is typical – as if written out of stillness and reflection. In this and other ways, Campbell’s poems remind me of Rachael Boast’s Sidereal – another book I’ve carried around (see her ‘Cabin Fever’). Talking of stars, here is the second half of Campbell’s ‘The tear in the sack’, a poem about a nightjar:
Its twin perspective
seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilled on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.
There’s a sense of wonder in these poems, whether the subject is death visiting in the sinister form of a long-buried dog, in ‘The fraud’, or strange birdsong in ‘Lyrebird’. The latter could be taken as a manifesto, for a poet who was less lyrical than this one.
What a heart, then
or what a damn fool
to hear the axe-fall,
the back-firing car,
a world break apart
and think to sing it.