Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

"Moontide" by Niall Campbell (Bloodaxe, 2014)

Mostly short, lyrical poems that remind me of Robin Robertson and Jon Redmond, with Burnside's rain, sea and smoke. By my count 13 of the 50 poems are from his 22-poem pamphlet, so I'll re-use my review of his pamphlet here.

of poems
He frequently returns to his favourite images, particularly regarding water (buckets, troughs, wells, sea, river), light (30% of the poems include "dark"), and song. To sight and sound can be added the senses of taste (mouths feature heavily) and smell (of smoke). The title poem begins "I never knew old rope could rust, could copper/ in its retirement as a nest for rats". Observation is combined with analogy - "one strand might snap ... yet thousands would remain still intertwined". One strand of a rope breaking is like one person dying. Several of the poems are dominated by a comparison

  • beached whales are like an old couple
  • grain falling from a sack is like stars in the sky
  • a bath is like a rowing boat?

When there's an extended metaphor, there's often another agent introduced to triangulate the comparison. "The Tear in the sack" compares the spilt grain to stars - but gets "a nocturnal bird, say, a nightjar", to observe the parallels - stars and grain presumably meaning more to the bird. "When the Whales Beached" also has an extended metaphor. Another version is published in The Literateur. In such poems the tenor and vehicle need to be convincingly presented, and a comparison suggested (by using "like", juxtaposition, etc). Then a moral of sorts is derived. How does this poem enact this?

It could have said that there were 2 whales, and then itemized the similarities between whales and people. Instead, we're left to work out the whale connections while we told about the old people; how if one of an old couple goes, the other follows, as they've always done (The quiet/union[ship] of sometimes being the one/
 to lead, sometimes to follow.). Even if one whale's freed, it returns to the shore, with a power like "Love,/and yet so much more than.". The poem continues " And these//who softly climbed the aching stair
/ of shore together and didn't fall short" (the Literateur version has "and there, stalled" rather than "and didn't fall short").

This analogising is framed. The poem begins with "Dear," and mentions how "we" tried to save the whales, establishing the solidity of the image by mentioning spades, etc. The tenor and vehicle are connected by the narrator saying how the whales remind him (her?) of his grandparents. In the final couplet love and "we" return, adding a third vertex to the tenor+vehicle - "How we stood by as if we’d nothing/ 
to say, when, love, I did, I do". "Nothing to say" reminds us of the earlier "quiet union"; "I do" might be from the marriage ceremony. Neat.

Other poems adjust the balance between observation and analogy. I liked "Crossing" when I first saw it in Rialto 79 with punctuation slightly different, and a word or 2 changed ("a shape of spit and bone" in Rialto is "a form all spit and bone" in the book, for example). I'd better not quote it in full. The first 2 stanzas, compressed, say "If the song was never written, would it have settled, singing itself on the far shore of the tongue's river, or have waited for further passage?" The final couplet is

Am I its whistling ferryman,
trailing my pen hand in the wake?

It's a poem that "resists the intelligence almost successfully -

  • "Crossing" could simply be crossing from thought into words, or perhaps from one mind to another.
  • Maybe the "song" is the short lyric that needs the addition of a further passage when it fails.
  • "ferryman" and "wake" suggest Charon taking the lyric to the next level. "whistling" and trailing hands suggest a relaxing punt trip.
  • "whistling" will provide the melody of the song, but not its words
  • If one trails one's pen hand, one can't write (unless one's writing one's name in water ...)

"The Blackbird Singer" interests me because it's the kind of thing I nowadays present as prose. I might have written "My brothers and I went out making traps for blackbirds, putting stolen grain under a propped box. I mimicked their song to tempt them. Later, I loved hearing the trapped flapping wings, the opposite of a music box - opening it silenced the music. Unlike others who killed birds with their bare hands and threw them as high as they could, we let them go. While my brothers went out for the night I dreamed about the symmetry of silence and song, of mouth and hands". And here's the plot of "The Fraud" - "Young and lonely, when I whistled as I walked the hills, a dog came beside me. I'm married now, and that dog's long dead, but it still tried to sneak past me to the fire and my wife. I made it do away but sometimes I hear it scratching at the door". These prose versions retain the symbolic skeleton, removing the poetic phrasing. He's good at coming up with phrases. They might mask problems in weaker poems - e.g. "sometimes, the song carries; sometimes,/ the shadow casts out longer than the man" (p.58).

"The Juggler" is 8 lines long, too short to step on Wilbur's territory, though the tone's similar - "I know ... why the fruit must not be eaten later .. : that my hands finish/ filled or empty - with neither feeling right".

In conclusion: I think his best poems are as attractive as any that his age group is producing, but extrapolating from pamphlet to book I worry about what he can do next. When he strays from his standard imagery or writes longer poems I'm unconvinced. "Le penseur" and "Exchange Street" are amongst the poems that puzzle me. "Songs of Kirilov" is more fragmentary than episodic.

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