HappenStance Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Peter Jarvis, Jo Langton and Christian Ward
After the Creel Fleet opens with a poem emblematic for the collection. ‘Reunion night’ is a brief, enigmatic quest involving repeated visits to an archetypal well (“all water-skin and sopped moss”). What the seeker draws from it is “the thick silt of childhood”, among other memorable residues of times and places past—discoveries that are likely to discomfort him or do not suffice: “I’ve nothing but grit on my tongue”. The ambiguity in “grit” is the first of several twin or parallel perspectives on meaning to worry away at the poet.
We meet another puzzler-over-meaning in the seriocomic ‘The messenger’, with its epigraph from Iain Crichton Smith. The small Campbell boy-messenger, the voice of the poem, intuits—in the letter he has sneaked a look at—that the writer’s questions are only superficial, not the deep ones really concerning the troubled old man’s problems with love and loneliness. The fine close to ‘The messenger’ is redolent of Crichton Smith’s life and poetic imagery:
He sits in his dark room, awaits a deepest reading
to draw him from the island like a thorn.
Heavy allusiveness to Smith’s ‘Chinese Poem’ raises the question of how free-standing should the new poem be? This one really does need an understanding of its forerunner.
The motif of tangled meanings continues in ‘Le penseur’ with the faux-ignorance of the speaker’s “je ne comprends pas”, followed by his dismissive “Let them make of it what they will”. Again, in terms of parallel perspectives, the fickleness of meaning is explored in ‘The tear in the sack’ and in ‘Advice’, with the mock-wisdom dispensed by the pub sage who demonstrates with “this empty Guinness glass” how its banded lines represent
a calendar of our ways,
our weather, our damned chance.
Those moments of our flood,
these moments of our drought.
Childhood, love, and death all percolate through the collection. Childhood is confined to ‘Reunion night’ and ‘Smultronstället, Glenday’. The latter is the triumph of the pamphlet in condensation, harmony of form and content, and its resonating Bergman reference. It has the proportions of a shrunken sonnet—the lengthy question followed by the ‘turn’ of a delicate, tentative response. Distinctly Hebridean in its setting, it foresees reaching further than ‘Reunion night’ towards “childhood’s verge” where the release proffered by that secret Edenic spot at last may be encountered.
Love and death are fused in a remarkable extended comparison in ‘When the whales beached’ (stranded whales are found similar to the speaker’s grandparents in their passing). Love comes into its own in the final poem, ‘North Atlantic drift’, which manages a link with ‘Reunion night’. The bathtub is hardly a well, but then wells are sometimes seen as cleansing baths or sites of renewal in a person’s life. From its end positioning, and the subject-matter of the couple in the bath, I see this poem as a sort of bizarre epithalamium. The watery union of the lovers happens in a wondrous ambience, with the evening in attendance as berthed vessel, the low light as revealer of beauty. Yet even here those bothersome thoughts about meaning intercede:
That night the usual swell and drift
delivered my old spoilt thought
of whether a life like this is long
or long remembered.
There are two things about After the Creel Fleet which really struck me: the perpetual wade through the recurrent images of wells, rivers and floods; and the constant ebbing and flowing in the perceptions of place. The geographic grounding mirrors the fluidity of imagery, leaving this ship of poems lost somewhere between Scotland and America: a poetic no-man’s land, gaining ground just to lose it again. There’s self-awareness, though, or a mission statement, even: “I’ll versify the river” ('Le penseur’).
The poems are caught somewhere between a multitude of binary oppositions: “Those moments of our flood,/ these moments of our drought” (‘Advice’). The language is seemingly shallow, before plunging us into the depths, aided in its successes by formal choices, effective line breaks and carefully placed punctuation, as in ‘When the whales beached’:
so we could begin the slow
unmooring of those black shapes to the waves,
it was hard to think of anything
but how soon my grandmother
had followed her husband earthwards. Love,
and yet so much more than. The quiet
union of sometimes being the one
to lead, sometimes to follow.
The poetic contrasts, which I won’t endeavour to enumerate, are epitomised through the enmeshing of person and place, ground and flesh. These natural images explore the human as Campbell rewrites relationships in a language with which he is apparently more familiar, but equally at unease—but that’s the craft of After the Creel Fleet. Here, the relationship between language and content are simultaneously weighted and unbalanced.
Campbell’s play with layout and blank space evolves in ‘The tear in the sack’ where “the parallels” are visually opposing its “twin perspective”. The stanza break between these two lines amplifies this caesura, the split. Not only are we on a slippery slope on the page, but through the contrasting content as well.
There’s a tension on this ship, rocking between destinations—a collection that leaves us at its own ambiguous destination in ‘North Atlantic drift’, where these well-sequenced poems find their ‘anchorage’ linguistically signified, if not fully realised.
I first read Niall Campbell’s poetry in The Salt Book of Younger Poets. I was impressed by his maturity of voice so I was pleased to receive After the Creel Fleet for review. This is a well-designed pamphlet that feels solid to hold. The cover is elegant, with a simple knot illustration on a cream-coloured background, and the title and poet’s name in a large font. There are no blurbs on the back cover, just a concise bio which tells readers all they need to know about the poet. Great value at £4.00.
Like the rope on the cover, Campbell’s poetry is straightforward and honest. Most of the poems are short lyrics written in couplets, tercets and the odd quatrain, sometimes breaking out into prose poetry as in ‘An introduction to the gods of Scotland’ and ‘Interrupting Boccaccio’. There are no attempts to fool the reader with images or metaphors that don’t go anywhere.
That’s not to say After the Creel Fleet doesn’t have some truly stunning images. In ‘Exchange Street’, “Blue ambulance lights beach against the streetlamps”, while in ‘Glassblower’ a crowd’s shopping bags are “drooping like moisture on a high ledge”, and in ‘Thirst’, water in pipes is “sweetened/ by the clear honey of its coldness”.
Set against both natural and manmade landscapes, Campbell ruminates on subjects such as myth/history, love and desire and the ‘what ifs’ of life. Nothing is certain in the poet’s world, and the narrative voice often questions this. In ‘Smultronstället, Glendale’, for example, the speaker asks if items from a childhood memory (“ram’s wool”, “ash-ruined grates”, “wind-sprung thatch and gravel”) will be “recalled as wild strawberries were”. In the title poem, the “store/ of ripples” (symbolic of memories) belonging to the rope coils are connected to “the last tight-rope” and “the last man hung”. The memory held in the strands is never certain to last: it rusts like the rope.