Issue Three

Spring 2012


Niall Campbell, After the Creel Fleet, HappenStance, 2012  £4.00

This is Niall Campbell’s first pamphlet—he received an Eric Gregory Award in 2011, and a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, and is originally from the Western Isles of Scotland. Antiphon regularly receives excellent submissions from Scottish poets. They can be relied upon for lyrical phrases and beautiful cadence and this pamphlet from Niall Campbell is no exception, though he makes less use of resonant Scots words than some.  These are rarely poems of place, however, though a few begin from that premise -  ‘An introduction to the gods of Scotland’ characterises cities by the gods that formed and represent them:

The eyeless. The enduring. The cautious that hid his great gifts,
for the greater part, out of our reach. Who prefers his churches
straight and grey. He is depicted always on the rock-face. He
wears nothing but the grey doe-hide he skinned the first day.

    An introduction to the gods of Scotland

His poems have an assured tone: reflective, often mysterious, something deeper below the surface. The best of his shorter poems encapsulate one perfectly formed central image yet hint at an unresolved wider meaning: the nightjar, a bird that sings at night, able to

witness more than we do
the parallels.

    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.

    The tear in the sack

Others, though containing similarly well-observed images, I felt were a little less effective.  The syntax of ‘The fraud’ seemed a touch clumsy and the central conceit of a childhood dog, long buried, summoned by the narrator to symbolise death (‘bore not a dog’s teeth/but a long, black mouth’) felt less effective than some of the other metaphors.  A number of the shorter poems, such as ‘Thirst’ and ‘Winter home’, whilst containing beautiful, crystal-clear images, left me wanting a bit more.  I am also a little unsure what to make of the prose-poem ‘Interrupting Boccaccio’ – a poem about wells and love – where the loss of line breaks seems to have also led to the loss of his usual tight, focussed images.  

The poems I liked best got their teeth into their subject-matter a little more and ran with it. The title poem, one of the best here, resonates with the long, hard tradition of a fishing fleet even though no boat is mentioned. Its initial couplet: 'I never knew old rope could rust, could copper/in its retirement as a nest for rats.' grabbed me immediately and the continuation of the extended metaphor is skilfully handled.

‘When the whales beached’ is a good example of the way in Campbell’s poems one thing leads to another. Here, it is an image from the present that leads the poet back: a beached whale reminds him of grandparents, one following the other, who climbed “the aching shore together, and didn’t fall short”.  Sharp images framed in couplets are enhanced by carefully considered line and stanza breaks. 'Glassblower', too, caught my eye with its interesting comparison of creating music with creating glass.

The best of these poems are deft, skilful, lovely; I look forward to reading more of him.