First Nights: Poems

First Nights: Poems

by Niall Campbell


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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 Nights—which includes all the poems in Moontide and sixteen new ones—marks 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172958
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/08/2016
Series: Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets , #132
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.00(d)

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

First Nights


By Niall Campbell


Copyright © 2017 Niall Campbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8337-0



    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.


    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.


    A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
    cocking its head in the silence
    of a few deflowering trees,
    witnesses more than we do
    the parallels.

      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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    — 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.


    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.


    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.


    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?


    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?

      It snows
    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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?


    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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Song 1

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

Midnight 12

The Blackbird Singer 13

The Fraud 14

Harvest 15

Grez, Near Dusk 16

The Water Carrier 17

One Day, Too Hot, I Swam to the Middle of the Stream 18

Lyrebird 19

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

Crossing 28

For the Cold 29

Fleece 30

Dream 31

Le Penseur 32

February Morning 33

Sea Coins, Scottish Beach 34

Advice on Love, Over Whisky 35

A Danse Macabre 36

Leave, Eriskay 38

Grez 39

A Porch-Step Glossary for Smokers 40

Foxes 41

Epitaph 42

Forge 43

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

Addendum 58

Island Cottage, November 59

Proof 60

Smultronstället, Glendale 61

A Sealskin Tale 62

Kid 63

Juggler 64

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

From the Publisher

"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

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