With Niall Campbell’s Moontide I’ve been to the Hebrides and back, I’ve explored dry grain stores in half-light and felt fleece brush my cheek, touched farm implements and coils of rope and imagined daylight. I’ve heard waves and kelpies in the distance and felt the bitterness of cold and the wretchedness of drowning. Then I’ve remembered birdsong, warmth and fragments of my own life.
Niall Campbell’s debut collection draws us in to an unfamiliar yet also familiar landscape of life remembered and imagined. There is a sense of it having all been written at dusk or in moonlight, physical features at first only discernible through sound (the constant audible backdrop of the sea, bird song) and touch (ice, dry plaster, wool, sand, fish) until we become accustomed to the dark and see. This is a shadowy place of recollections and of sensual experience: beautiful yet stark, a reconciliation of life and death.
Campbell grew up on South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and images of these isles and the people and wildlife that inhabit them dominate. Yet these are no chocolate-box lid or tourist brochure photograph depictions. The landscape is rugged and gritty, the palette muted – grey-brown as gulls and pale green-gold as bracken, shot through with glints of copper rust and glistening on fish. Campbell’s deft use of sensual description allows us to inhabit the landscape with him, to feel the cold in the long dark winters (“For the Cold”; “The Winter Home”) or the warm beat of the sheep’s heart under the shearer’s knife:
Such craft for the hands: leavening the gold
from the pale underskin; his head right down
to the knife line, he’d hear the whispered dub-
dub of the heart locked inside its red room. (“Fleece”)
Here, man and nature are at the mercy of the elements, the sea gives and the sea takes away:
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… (“The House by the Sea, Eriskay”)
The islanders’ way of life past and present is described through their toil: shearing, fishing, whaling, horse-trading, memories of the poet’s grandfather’s berry-picking and pickling (“The Work”; “Fleece”; “Forge”; “A Dance Macabre”; “Later Tasting”),
If I have to, then let me be the whaler poet,
launcher of the knife, portioning off
the pink cut, salt trim and fat, tipping
the larger waste off the side of the boat… (“The Work”)
There are themes exploring the relationships between man and nature (“After the Creel Fleet”), of death and returning to the earth or the sea (“When the Whales Beached”); of solitude and dreaming of another place or time (“Song”; “Kid”); of leaving and returning and of memory (the poet remembering his grandfather making jam in “Later Tasting”, catching birds as a boy in “The Blackbird Singer” or remembering dreaming of America while sending messages in bottles in ‘The Letter Always Arrives at its Destination’). The strong theme of memory allows the departures to Scotland’s cities and to Grez sur Loing, romantic vignettes of remembered light and colour like paintings by The Glasgow Boys, to not seem surprising. We might imagine Campbell in Edinburgh or Glasgow musing on his remembered experience, like Wordsworth recalling a few miles above Tintern Abbey from his gloomy city bed. We ponder with the poet:
…whether a life like this is long
or long remembered… (“North Atlantic Drift”)
Moontide flits through time and place like memory itself, and the cumulative effect is powerful.
Josephine Jules Andrews