The Scottish poet Niall Campbell's first book, Moontide, won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize, the largest such prize in the United Kingdom, was named the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for both the Fenton Aldeburgh and Forward prizes for best first collection. First Nightswhich includes all the poems in Moontide and sixteen new onesmarks the North American debut of an exciting new voice in British poetry.
First Nights offers vivid descriptions of the natural world, and the joy found in moments of quiet, alongside intimate depictions of new parenthood. Campbell grew up on the remote, sparsely populated islands of South Uist and Eriskay in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and First Nights is filled with images of the islands’ seascapes, myths, wildlife, and long, dark winters. But the poems widen beyond their immediate locations to include thoughts on sculpture and mythology, Zola and Dostoevsky, and life in English cities and French villages. In the poems on early fatherhood, the geography shifts from coastal stretches to bare, dimly lit rooms. Stripped back, honest, and immediate, these poems capture moments of vulnerability, when the only answer is to love.
Combining skilled storytelling, precise language, an allegiance to meter and form, and a quiet musicality, these poems resonate with silence and song, mystery and wonder, exploring ideas of companionship and withdrawal, love, and the stillness of solitude. The result is a collection that promises to be a classic.
About the Author
Niall Campbell was born in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. His first UK collection, Moontide, won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for both the Fenton Aldeburgh and Forward prizes for best first collection. He lives in Leeds, UK.
Read an Excerpt
By Niall Campbell
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2017 Niall Campbell
All rights reserved.
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.
If I have to, then let me be the whaler poet,
launcher of the knife, portioning off
the pink cut, salt trim and fat, tipping
the larger waste off the side of the boat,
and then to have the poem in the drawer;
or, perhaps, let it be the poet nurse,
hearts measured by a small watch, balmer,
washer of old skin, stopping by the door
in the night —
or the oil-driller poet, primed
for the buried flame and heat, lips to the black,
aware how the oilfields in the evening
are lit like our own staggered desks.
Or, the horse-trader or the smith, or the waiter poet —
offering the choice wine, polishing to the light,
the bringer of the feast and the bill.
She met me at the fence. A kelpie
who'd stayed too long in this horse form,
she mouthed the sugar on my palm,
and when I slapped her barrel flank
the goose moor stiffened with a sea
perfume. Gulls gathered on the stoop.
What a way to be seen out: confused
among the pearlwort and the fallow.
Her beach songs, like the recalled taste
of bucket milk, inched from her tongue.
Dusk grew behind the house. I watched
her drink the moon from a moon-filled trough.
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 ampersands
tell of this night, and this night, and this,
spent taut between the surface and the seafloor —
the water coarsening each coiled blue fiber
and strained, one strand might snap, unleash its store
of ripples to be squandered in the dark
though thousands would remain still intertwined
and thousands do remain, but frailer now.
These hoards, attached to nothing, not seen since
the last tightrope was walked, the last man hung.
THE TEAR IN THE SACK
A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
cocking its head in the silence
of a few deflowering trees,
witnesses more than we do
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.
RODIN SCULPTS THE KISS
There with a swung hammer is a man in love,
there's crafting, and there's breaking of squared marble.
There, the white dust and the scattered chippings
of what's fashioned out. How bare it looks,
half-made — a figure leaning in to kiss
what's not there yet, the arms encircling nothing
but a rougher offshoot of themselves. And yet
the kiss is held — as though the stone the figure
cradles receives it. Here is a strange knowledge
and a strange trust: his heart can sense the stone
heart aching in the block, his lips can taste
the mountainside that shapes into a mouth.
It's China that has, as the image of sleep,
the sleeper drinking from the night sea —
their bowl first lowered, and then raised with ocean;
a fisherman's son, I'm drawn to this.
Listening to the street's late deliveries,
I picture each one I love at this beach,
bowing intent to the work, their sand plot,
the moon adrift somewhere in their curved bay.
Here's my wife beside me, and there she is,
all lips and black water — I could ask,
where is my beach, my long sea? But, instead,
I'll raise this waking to my mouth, and drink.
There must at any given moment be an abstract right or wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden.
G. K. CHESTERTON
I had gone walking in the forest — not
for any need of wood or kindling
but rather just to feel across the shoulders
the full weight of the question of the axe;
the forest sounded to a hundred axmen,
a hundred axwomen's blows — they never tired,
it seemed, and their trees — so thick — didn't split
or fall, at least not to my listening.
At times, I allowed myself a dream of felling:
the metal blade imparting its own catch
of light into the tree's so-tender bole,
my own bright sweat on brow and hands and back;
ah bliss, I thought, and I swung dedicated,
loud, against the bark of this dreamed tree
or that. These thoughts made the route home seem short,
and once or twice I even stopped to tap
against the length of one that stretched or towered.
I pressed a licked thumb to the wood. Perhaps,
soon, I would make to start. Then, as is right,
burn the rest of the forest to the ground.
THE WINTER HOME
Darling, allow me the best evenings
to breathe the cold, to ruminate
like a diver on his rising breath.
The low-backed seat of the house step
inches ever further from the road.
And there's the jasmine opening
in garden branches. A white flower,
unfurling in the sub degrees,
in its pale rush of residing.
"THE LETTER ALWAYS ARRIVES AT ITS DESTINATION"
— then I wrote often to the sea,
to its sunk rope and its salt bed,
to the large weed mass lipping the bay.
The small glass bottles would be lined
along the bedroom floor — ship green
or church-glass clear — such envelopes
of sea-mail. Only on the day
of sending would a note be fed
into each swollen, brittle hull —
I had my phases: for so long
it was maps: maps of wader nests,
burrows and foxes dens, maps where
nothing was in its true position —
my landscape blooming from the surf.
Later, I'd write my crushes' names
onto the paper, as a small gift.
The caps then tested and wax sealed.
None ever reached my dreamed America,
its milk-white shore, as most would sink
between the pier and the breakwater,
and I would find that I had written
about the grass to the drowned sand,
again; and to the sunken dark,
I had sent all the light I knew.
My heart had been repeating oh heart, poor heart
all evening. And all because I'd held my child,
oh heart, and found that age was in my cup now;
poor heart, it bare knew anything
but the life of a young axman in the forest,
whistler, tree-feller, swinging with the wind,
where oh heart, poor heart isn't the heard song,
where there is no cry in the night, no cradling,
no heart grown heavy, heavier, with opening.
THE BLACKBIRD SINGER
There we were at our hidden pastime:
one lugging a box and prop, another
who stole from a farmer's store the grain
that served as bait, and then the last
who'd imitate the call of a blackbird,
flirting them out from the bush.
The sound of beating wings. Such bliss
to listen to a sprung trap — our flawed
songbox that only played when shut,
so when you lifted the wood lip
from the pressed dirt its singer bolted
like a dark adolescent thought.
Back then, we heard of those who throttled
what they trapped — whose milk hands knew
the sureness of the yellow beak,
who would, then, skirt the stiffening frames
over the deep grass, the wings bent
on journeys always straight and short.
My brothers gone off for the night,
I'd stay to dream the symmetry
housed in the act: lifting the lid
to find the same song in my hands
as in my mouth — then the same silence,
lifting from the field like a gunshot.
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 its 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.
I've been thinking too much about the night
I slipped and the coal scattered on the snowed drive.
Then it was time spent in luck's appleyard
gathering its black fruit; or it was time
collecting what I'd left too long to gather,
a harvest all wilt and harrowed — anyway,
it was time spent, and I held the steel bucket,
filled it to the sound of nothing at all.
GREZ, NEAR DUSK
Just a postcard to say not that it has rained
but that it smells impossibly of rain.
Moths feed on this silk hour, there's smoke from chimneys
where families are preparing for the change.
Let me explain how the bowed sky is heavy
with the deep song of the failing color
and yet it's missing. But stay. Wait with me.
Things will be different when the sun is lower.
THE WATER CARRIER
I want to be the worst of this profession,
the one who makes it home half-empty, tipping
more air than water from the ringing pot,
and so late back the town's already dark;
Oh no, they'll say, that's not the way of it,
and I'll know their heaven's brimful and undrunk,
their lips parched.
What do they know of the kiss
on the shoulder of that first spilt drop,
the tuneful drip, drip, drip on the stone path?
Midway home, midway from the source, my dream-sun
bleaching the sky, what could be better than
dry road ahead, my flooded road behind?
ONE DAY, TOO HOT, I SWAM TO THE MIDDLE OF THE STREAM
The alternative was to be the man,
ashore, who says no, this will do: the bulrush
and timothy, the reeds and the long braced life
of firm and flowered land;
or the alternative was to be a burning type,
and set a fire, adding one more degree
of brightness, one more degree of heat,
hoping the hours were glad of this;
or the alternative was to be the tired traveler,
my head put down on a curled-up shirt,
my hours given over, my name given up,
and not to even hear the stream;
or the alternative was not to be the swimmer,
but just the swimmer's hand, his driving on;
or just to be the swimmer's lung, filled and spent,
and not to care to where I'm calling.
Owner of no plainsong,
it had come too late
to the song box
on the first day,
the other birds
having emptied it.
What a heart, then,
or what a damn fool
to hear the axe-fall,
the backfiring car,
a world break apart
and think to sing it.
Young father, is that you at the night drum,
playing soft, as though the lark was easy woken?
It's me — I didn't think there was a listener.
Then why, young father, do you play?
beyond the window, the whole house sleeps — and, love,
I'm carrying something that is a change.
What do you make, young father, of the lateness,
are you a little drunken with the dark?
Yes, my head swims; I lean this head against
the solid wall, and hum to these new cares.
So, go on, tell what you hope for, young father.
Not sleep — not day, not company — just let
snow fall, light burn, glass shatter, let things slide,
let the new change be unlike the old change.
Blue ambulance lights beach against the streetlamps.
What a night to depart, with the first storm
of winter still a day from breaking and the town's
palest girl due to wear that reddest dress
she wears so seldom. Just imagine,
hung on to hear, perfected, from the window,
as the sleet falls, that hush in her red wake.
AN EEL, A SINGING BIRD, A SILVER COIN
These are my favorite stories: where a sealskin
is found by the grey rockpools by the sea,
or a sickly girl, when other cures have failed,
is starved for a week —
and whoever flayed the skin was perfect:
it lifting thin but whole, dark as handled silk,
and when the week's gone, the girl sickens up
an eel, a singing bird, and a silver coin,
and soon he sleeps in it, dreaming he is
a moving sea and it his brighter surface,
and there her singing bird dies on the stones,
while her thin eel slips off beneath the door,
and now he's waist-deep in the ocean, turning
inside the current, launching his spent waves,
and since it's all that's left, the girl picks up
her silver coin, and swallows it again —
Sometimes — who'd want the comfort? Young, in love,
but it's defeat, now, that seems the good honey:
being the girl who's empty but for silver,
the man who's naked but for a coat of salt.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
I've served apprentice to a watchmaker,
who knows how long — my job to pair
the wheel-cog to its pocketcase,
or, like a servant with a young prince,
to wash the little golden hands.
I dream of springs and time, and aiming
grit at a drum of brilliant darkness:
a game that starts the evening ticking.
Bowed over clockwork, the hour's stress,
I think about the night's stretched frame
and pockets full with the day's gravel:
so much is just this bearing stones.
THE WELL FOUND DRY
Part wailed — part walked off, as though shamed
to be seen in so much want;
part licked the walls that lowered to the drop;
part, slack-jawed by the loss, chewed mud
from the well bed with a happy face;
part broke the bucket — then part sucked
the grainy panels — for the moisture left;
part blamed and called; for part there was relief;
part looked on; part looked on confused
having never cared or known of thirst.
RETURN, ISLE OF ERISKAY
Hardly a gesture at all but let me
twin the fact of the bay frozen over
with a light being in the window
of the abandoned house.
Let's talk of their comparable hush;
how, in its all-year winter, plaster
snows from abandoned walls, and gathers;
how even when this cold, the ice weeps.
WHEN THE WHALES BEACHED
On that day of spades,
engraving lines and inlets in the sand,
so that 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. And these
who softly climbed the aching stair
of shore together, and didn't fall short.
How we stood by as if we'd nothing
to say, when, love, I did. I do.
Who knows what he meant by that first-last gift
of grit and pollen and sheep-dirt, and rain,
and whatever was on the hand that picked them:
diesel, linen soap, fish blood, with peat crumbs
not emptied from the picking bucket.
The berries sieved beneath the garden pump.
Now pot, now jam-sugar and upper heat
and soon the felt cream lifted off, too sweet,
too sour, for tasting.
Bees strike against
the kitchen glass; nectar birds turn in the air
somewhere in their lost jungles. My grandfather,
knowing what a mouth is for, watches it cool,
then asks to hold the bundle of his grandchild
and feeds this less-than-one year old, this milk child,
one teaspoon; the child shivers through the taste.
Today, I find another jar — still red
as a letter seal — and find it sweet, so sweet,
so sweet — and think I nearly understand him.
Say that the song was never written,
would it have settled there, I wonder,
on that far shore of the tongue's river,
singing itself, stubbing its heels
into the bank that is pure air?
Or would it wait for further passage?
Stood on the quay so long until
a form all spit and bone and light.
Am I some whistling ferryman,
trailing my pen hand in the wake?
FOR THE COLD
The last tenant of our newest house
had the gas boiler fire up in the late hours.
And so, last night, so cold, I listened to
the floorboards warp in the unwelcome heat.
I barely slept. The thought of him stretched out
beside us, hot as a hand that gives the slap.
Since then the water tenses in the pipe,
as his darkness changes to my dark.
Given a choice of anyone unmentioned
in literary history, I'd sink
for a while into the stock frame of the shearsman
at Colchis — when they took the ram to him.
Such craft for the hands: leavening the gold
from the pale underskin; his head right down
to the knife line, he'd hear the whispered dubdub
of the heart locked inside its red room.
The bats flown out above our tiny house,
I want to face the stiff wool folding back
on this his one, best hour: its golden sleeve;
the knife already blunting in his hand.
I heard him crying in his sleep,
my two-month-old — and marveled, when,
perhaps, I should have woken him;
young, young boy, already he seemed
to be drawing from his human well,
sipping the taste, learning the balance
that must be paid for his new hours:
his milk for later's bitter milk.
Who'd have known we knew this so early?
I did not wake him, though he cried,
but bent above his cot — and talked
him through his dream, until he settled.
Perhaps I'm by the river, as the moths
for the seventh night in a week
emerge to butt the brightest windows,
the hot days gone by listening
to the rain-rhythms of the locals
and in practicing my own line,
my je ne comprends pas,
assured as a bronze bell, and used
so often that they rightly wonder
what it is I do understand.
So, later, drafting a thinnest gospel,
I'll versify the river and its passing,
the moths, their practice, and a bare sky.
Let them make of it what they will.
The winter light was still to hit the window,
and all my other selves were still asleep,
when, standing with this child in all our bareness,
I found that I was a ruined bridge, or one
that stood so long half-built and incomplete;
at other times I'd been a swinging gate,
a freed skiff — then his head dropped in the groove
of my neck, true as a keystone, and I fixed:
all stone and good use, two shores and one crossing.
Excerpted from First Nights by Niall Campbell. Copyright © 2017 Niall Campbell. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Work 2
On Eriskay 3
After the Creel Fleet 4
The Tear in the Sack 5
Rodin Sculpts The Kiss 6
Black Water 7
The Cut 8
The Winter Home 9
“The Letter Always Arrives at Its Destination” 10
The Blackbird Singer 13
The Fraud 14
Grez, Near Dusk 16
The Water Carrier 17
One Day, Too Hot, I Swam to the Middle of the Stream 18
First Nights 20
Exchange Street 21
An Eel, A Singing Bird, A Silver Coin 22
A Little Night Music 23
The Well Found Dry 24
Return, Isle of Eriskay 25
When the Whales Beached 26
Later Tasting 27
For the Cold 29
Le Penseur 32
February Morning 33
Sea Coins, Scottish Beach 34
Advice on Love, Over Whisky 35
A Danse Macabre 36
Leave, Eriskay 38
A Porch-Step Glossary for Smokers 40
And This Was How It Started 44
An Island Vigil 45
Walking Song 46
An Introduction to the Gods of Scotland 47
Window, Honley 48
I Started 49
Cyprus Avenue 50
The House by the Sea, Eriskay 51
The Songs of Kirilov 52
Horseshoe Crab 53
Reading Emile Zola, Grez 54
Carpenter’s Studio off Exchange Street 55
Concerning Song/Silence 56
Leave Poetry 57
Island Cottage, November 59
Smultronstället, Glendale 61
A Sealskin Tale 62
Winter with Soren 65
North Atlantic Drift 66
From a Letter to the Butter-Makers 67
Aesthetics, on a Side Street off Glasgow Green 68
Measuring Heat Loss in the Arctic 70
A Song for Rarity 71
What People are Saying About This
"Niall Campbell's debut collection is a wonder. These poems have the freshness and modernity that can only burst from roots deep in folk tradition. They surprise and alert us to what poetry has done, is doing, and will do. The edge on Campbell's lines is sharp, and he knows how to wield it, like an axe."Gwyneth Lewis, Inaugural National Poet of Wales, 2005–6