Full disclosure: Niall’s a pal. Hope you trust me to be impartial.
Review: Lately I re-read both Nathan Hamilton’s manifestroduction to Dear World and Everyone In It and Sam Riviere’s debut collection 81 Austerities, along with some criticism that came out at the time (see Peter Riley on Dear World, Alex Niven and Stephen Ross on 81 Austerities). Hamilton explicitly sets out to establish the new establishment, a few reviewers in the national dailies tripped sideways to do so on Riviere’s behalf, ‘hyperbolised out of existence’. Hamilton’s response to poetry-as-tradition posited that new uncomplicatedly equaled better, thus old should uncomplicatedly get out of the way; as Riley notes, however, Hamilton’s essay reiterates a process of artistic clearance that happens once every couple of decades, and is itself a fairly traditional gesture. 81 Austerities, on the other hand, doesn’t dispense with a Romantic approach to writing poetry as much as give it a new vocabulary; to that end the book is, perhaps Odes to TL61P aside, as idiosyncratic a collection as has appeared in recent years, and is due praise for its singular vision. Like Odes, however, it suffers from a lack of conceptual complexity and flexibility at its core, and many of its primary assumptions are wholly conventional – self as primary agent, women as prize/object/list of names, art as commerce, self as primary locus of meaning.
I mention all this as a way of approaching a book which is openly and wholeheartedly wired into the lyric poetry tradition, and ably demonstrates the benefits of building on the achievements of poetic predecessors rather than painting them as traitors to the revolution. The presences of Frost, Heaney, Mahon, Paterson and Jamie are enabling and benign, less the Bloomian nightmare of Hamilton’s perpetual avant-garde, and Moontide is perhaps most comfortable when negotiating its place within this tradition, and some of the best individual pieces come from an ability to play with the tonal expectations it creates. ‘The Fraud’ comes at the crest of a series of poems (‘After the Creel Fleet’, ‘The Tear in the Sack’, ‘Black Water’) that gradually bring to the surface the book’s imaginative underworld, explicitly one that revolves around island ecology and the sea at night. Here’s ‘The Fraud’ (hope the copyright gods don’t mind):
How like a shepherd or herdsman of loss
I must have whistled out into the evening
that a childhood dog came cowering to my heel:
years under, its coat now wool-thick with soil
and loosely collared with the roots of bog-myrtle.
A surprise then my old companion strained
to sneak by me to the fire and my wife.
Checked by a boot, it bore not a dog’s teeth
but a long, black mouth. Then it slunk back to the hill.
Some nights I hear this thin dog claw the door.
The poem’s positioning in the collection, at the point where historical reality and metaphor blur for the first time, is very pleasingly weird, as is its utter refusal to provide emotional or aesthetic comfort, as in ‘Song’ or ‘When the Whales Beached’. Though Moontide’s opening poems are beautifully measured and conceptually well-crafted, it is ‘The Fraud’’s spot of chaos and fear that first demonstrates the book’s full dramatic range; it’s very rare to see a poem paint its (ostensibly) autobiographical speaker so powerlessly, to prioritise the poem’s own dramatic mechanisms over the speaker’s self-image. See also the wonderfully Gaiman-y ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’, almost a companion poem, in which ‘the drowned climb to land’, ‘drying out their lungs’, ‘wringing their hands / until the seawater floods across the floor’. Moontide’s horror poems are a little genre to themselves.
And I think this is at the heart of Moontide’s endeavour. Few recent collections have such a facility with shaping the dramatic moment, of locating the crucial detail in its own conceit. This may be where Mahon’s influence bears the most fruit: Campbell shares that poet’s ability to turn the poem on its head in its closing phrases (as seen above), which occurs so often throughout the collection it’s almost easier to note where it doesn’t. This semantic restlessness is one of the collection’s major pleasures, one that rewards multiple readings and close attention.
While we’ve got Mahon on the phone, we should probably also look at Campbell’s concision. Few poems cross the page, which – combined with the well-judged brevity of the book at large, another rare treat – permits the kind of cumulative reading that is one of lyric poetry’s great weapons, the recurring chimes and echoes, that ability to say ‘not only but also’ across an entire book. ‘Window, Honley’ is a good example of this tendency to recycle and repurpose images introduced elsewhere, appropriately (or serendipitously) a poem about time: ‘The village bell’s been broken for a month, […] so I’ll ask what time matters anyway: / just light, less light, and dark; the going off / of milk or love; our tides claimed back: weed rafts, // green wood and all; those old wolves disappearing / from the bleak forest that we dream about’. It’s probably not a coincidence that a collection so deeply concerned with time’s passing is at pains not to waste the reader’s. And how’s this for a finish: ‘the marriage that // left confetti in the streets until the storm; / yesterday’s sweet unrust; a man with pen / at a lit window, that he’s long since left.’
As ‘Aesthetics, on a Side Street off Glasgow Green’ notes, Campbell’s work ‘too, / stiffens with the influence of frost’, where for ‘frost’ read ‘Frost’, which I can’t help feeling is a wee breadcrumb for detective-critics like myself. It does illuminate that part of Campbell’s writing that reaches for the deep thought through common language, though, and makes very little fuss about the attempt. Of course, sneaking in a pointer towards a poet of Frost’s stature is its own kind of boldness, and you could argue that on occasion the consciously literary pieces fall flat; ‘Reading Émile Zola, Grez’, for example, questionably asks the reader to look at ‘girls in red tops sleeping on thick grass […] teasingly / disclosing tender shapes they would take on / in a double bed’. However ironically pitched, this brings little to the book’s conversation. Far more common, though, are Moontide’s imaginative and well-wrought lyric spaces, the small victories and evasion of easy conclusions.
Tl;dr: Moontide is a pretty great book, one that manages to keep its ingredients simple and its dishes complex. If there’s some atmospheric similarities to the patriarchs of Scottish poetry (Burnside, Robertson etc), they are largely undone by Campbell’s ability to speak directly and pragmatically about love, to mostly avoid those poets’ casual misogyny, and to consistently puncture or undermine the speaker’s authority. Moontide is a collection that rewards patience and generous reading.