Moontide by Niall Campbell
64 pages, £9.95,
It’s become a moment to savour when the debut collection of an Eric Gregory Award-winner hits the shelves. The Society of Authors have an uncanny habit of getting it right with young poets – Sam Riviere, Emily Berry, Ahren Warner and Helen Mort are just a few recent winners to be lavished with justifiable praise and attention – and 2011-recipient Niall Campbell seems next in line. After a widely admired debut pamphlet from HappenStance, After the Creel Fleet (2012) and winning the Poetry London Competition, Moontide is a collection punctuated by tides, ice and fading light, and presents us with poems of impressive confidence in their relative quiet.
Having grown up in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, a notion of unavoidable isolation runs through Campbell’s poetry, capturing the remoteness of his island upbringing. Moontide is a book where his grandparent’s love for one another is brought to mind by beached whales, where messages are cast out to sea in bottles for unknown recipients and where ‘sometimes,/ the shadow casts out longer than the man’.
Campbell’s poems are most successful when veiled in mystery and a sense of threat: a singer accepting a bet to sing one thousand songs is ‘panicked by silence’ late on the fifth day and, elsewhere, ghostly childhood dogs return at a whistle and blackbirds are enticed from the bush by an imitator to have their necks ringed.
Away from the outlying islands of home, the poet is pictured as equally solitary. A series sent from a time spent in France describes an enforced isolation and display of diffidence not present in any of Campbell’s poetic craft:
my je ne comprends pas,
assured as a bronze bell, and used
so often that they rightly wonder
what it is I do understand.
There are some parallels to be drawn with his older compatriots Burnside and Jamie – a measured turn of phrase, an understanding that myth and landscape are poetically intertwined – but Campbell’s voice is assured and confident enough to stand alongside those. In the notable series of poems from the Outer Hebridean Isle of Eriskay, the poet creates a mysterious world of ‘all year winter’, where a land-locked kelpie – ‘her beach songs, like the recalled taste / of bucket milk’ – is watched drinking ‘the moon from a moon-filled trough’. Bays frozen over, weeping ice, and ‘The House by the Sea’ where the drowned climb to land for a single night upon their death, conjure the supernatural and highlight Campbell’s concern with what occurs under the cover of darkness.
From the opening poem, ‘Song’, where the poet revels in the certain light of a match-lit cellar, these poems exist in shadow. There is a sparsity in Campbell’s work that marks him as a poet acutely aware of the effects of silence on a line and on a reader. His lone voice amongst the seascapes and long dark winters of the Hebrides seems to answer itself in an echo as the poems resonate long after reading. Plunged into darkness, he tells us, for a moment everything is ink:
Then, the head gathered some of what
the heart already knew of quiet:
the hush, the burr, the meadow-weed,
that this is all, and this enough.
The Literateur published Niall Campbell’s ‘When the Whales Beached’ in July 2011.
James Trevelyan grew up in the Midlands and now lives in South London. Having completed an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, his poems have been published in 14 Magazine, Neon, Cake and anthologised in Bedford Square 5. He is currently a volunteer assistant at the Poetry Book Society.