'Leave poetry, my friend, for the shadows that retreat at morning.' (from 'Leave Poetry (after Luis Munoz)’)
I was a little worried, I must admit, on beginning Moontide, the first full-length volume of poetry by Hebridean poet Niall Campbell. No, worried is the wrong word - overwhelmed is more like it. This isn’t poetry that reaches out its hand to the reader, to make them comfortable and ease their passage through the words. It’s intensely lyrical, with densely layered meaning that takes several readings to winkle out and, even then, isn’t always within grasp. Certainly, it’s a piece of work to be taken a piece at a time, line by line, allowing each poem to develop and resonate, building its themes gradually.
Soon, though, I felt myself relax into Campbell's lines, the sheer confidence and surety of his writing letting the reader know that this is a poet who knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say. His might not be guiding hands but they are steady, skilful ones. Inspired by his native South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, Campbell does not prettify his bleak and cold canvas but draws out the beauty of dark skies and freezing surfaces, finding pain and joy, the mundane and the fantastical within the coastline.
Hardly a gesture at all but let me
twin the fact of the bay frozen over
with a light being in the window
of the abandoned house.
Let’s talk of their comparable hush;
how, in its all year winter, plaster
snows from abandoned walls, and gathers;
how even when this cold the ice weeps.
(Return, Isle of Eriksay)
Here, kelpies mouth sugar from outstretched palms (On Eriksay), flowers bloom in the cold (The Winter Home), mysterious gifts of berries are made into jam (Later Tasting), and in one particularly moving entry, a pair of whales, beached and stranded, bring to mind the love between long-coupled grandparents:
On that day of spades,
engraving lines and inlets in the sand,
so that we could begin the slow
unmooring of those black shapes to the waves,
it was hard to think of anything
but how soon my grandmother
had followed her husband earthwards.
(from When the Whales Beached)
There is far more here, of course, than simply a celebration of sea, sky and landscape. Campbell’s subjects are wide-ranging, including insomnia (Black Water), childhood memories (The Blackbird Singer), marriage (North Atlantic Drift) and mythology (An Introduction to the Gods of Scotland). Even zombies make an appearance (albeit the soulful, tragic kind, rather than their flesh-ripping counterparts):
This is where the drowned climb to land.
For a single night when a boat goes down
soaked footprints line its cracked path
as inside they stand open mouthed at a fire,
drying out their lungs, that hang in their chests
like sacks of black wine.
(from The House by the Sea, Eriskay)
One of the more prevalent themes is the process of writing itself. Moontide’s opening poem, the one that foxed me and forced several re-readings, is a paean to the joy of cloistered creativity:
What sweeter triumph can there be
than the match lit in the grain-cellar,
no moon in the dark gallery
below the sleeping house. It’s better
when I’m alone – can freely handle
those older tools for harrowing
and planting, turn the bent seed-cradle,
or thumb the axe-blade like a harp string.
Elsewhere, there are allusions to creative rivalry and jealousy (Concerning Song/Silence), recognition and legacy (The Work) and inspiration itself (Crossing). Some references are obvious, others subtly woven amongst images and stories but what unmistakably emerges from this collection is a meditation on the link between place, personal history and creativity. And also the urge to communicate, to send our creations out into the world, like messages in bottles:
Later, I’d write my crushes’ names
onto the paper, as a small gift.
The caps then tested and wax sealed.
None ever reached my dreamed America,
its milk-white shore, as most would sink
between the pier and the breakwater,
and I would find that I had written
about the grass to the drowned sand,
again; and to the sunken dark,
I had sent all the light I knew.
(from ‘The Letter Always Arrives at its Destination’)
Shall I reference John Donne's famous line on men and islands? Only obliquely. But there is something here about the strange duality of writing, its cycle of intense privacy and intense exposure. Campbell is a poet who has left his birthplace (he now lives in Edinburgh) for bigger things but whose mind is still filled with its landscape. He is a poet who is winning prestigious awards but still opens his latest work with a celebration of small victories, won in solitude. Clearly his work, and its effect on his life, are on his mind and Moontide gives us a powerful, fascinating insight into this relationship.
I suspect Moontide won't win (pause to reiterate that I have absolutely no influence on this matter and, at the time of writing, no knowledge either). There are more striking books on the list and it doesn't break any new ground. It's a strong entry, though, poignant and powerful and full of love for a place that doesn't suffer an overabundance of literary attention. It speaks eloquently of the connection between the artist’s craft and his roots, how one informs and influences whilst the other retraces, reinterprets and immortalises. This man may not be an island but, in Moontide, he makes it clear that an island – and its creative bounty – is part of him.
(Opinions are all my own and not reflections of the Saltire Society panel.)