Moontide by Niall Campbell

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Like the title, Niall Campbell brings a nocturnal ebb and flow to the sixty-two poems of his first book-length collection.

Moontide by Niall Campbell | Photo © Bloodaxe Books

Campbell’s début pamphlet After the Creel Fleet (Happenstance Press 2012) introduced one of the most distinctive lyrical voices to emerge from Scotland in recent years.

Campbell was born in 1984 on the island of South Uist in The Outer Hebrides and Moontide immediately picks up in its first poem Song, the sparse lyrical quality that won his first pamphlet so many plaudits:

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. 
Niall Campbell | Photo © Niall Campbell

The tides of the Outer Hebrides turn continuously throughout Moontide as does a busying recurrent theme of hands. Not just paying homage to the artifice of the shearer who, in Fleece, prepares the Golden Fleece for Jason:

Such craft for the hands: leavening the gold
from the pale underskin; his head right down
to the knife line…

.. but also to the poet’s hands, holding the tool that crafts the poem, an echo of the paternal spade skills of Seamus Heaney’s Digging.

Like the ‘nocturnal bird’ in The Tear in the Sack, Campbell’s poems have an otherworldliness about them, an ability to see two things at once, a wing-beat between the mundane and the profound. This twin-perspective encompasses the best of Moontide: ‘the grain spilled on the roadway dirt’ or the ‘scattered stars’ chance positioned.

Shore, near Milton, South Uist | Photo © Klonowski

Most of these poems exist in the sparse, lyrical world of South Uist, where the drowned return to land, just for one night …

drying out their lungs that hang in their chests
like sacks of black wine.

… while in After the Creel Fleet,

I never knew old rope could rust, could copper
in its retirement as a nest for rats.
The frayed lengths knotting into ampersand …

Campbell brings the mythical very close in his poems but keeps it tantalisingly out of reach, unsullied by the dullness of the real world. He hints at a South Uist abandoned to the ghosts, shadowing the hard graft of a life obsolete yet always on the edge of the mythical and macabre.

In the final poem, Campbell leaves Eriskay and his parting lines leave the reader with a sense of nostalgia for the way things were and why they are no more:

I know the feeling of the grain farmer
who packed up and left his smallholding:
and not for the famine or the drought
but for the light being always on his back.

Moontide (Bloodaxe Books 2014) won the inaugural £20,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, currently Britain’s biggest poetry prize. It has been short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection as well as receiving a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Written for a promotion of Moontide at Bookcase Bookshop, Carlisle.

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