Published by Princeton University Press, 2017 | 73 pages
It’s a pleasant paradox that, diurnal though we are, humans do some of their best work by night. In the absence of light, and in lieu of sight, the other senses strengthen, and the imagination asserts itself with confidence and liberality. Poets are, unsurprisingly, among the gloom’s greater enthusiasts, and there exists a shadow-corpus of night-pieces, or nocturnals, that bathe in occlusion and the powers it bestows. Consider, for instance, John Donne’s “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day,” published posthumously in 1633, wherein a bereaved lover declares himself alienated from the rest of nature, and seeks in darkness a connection to primordial essences. Or listen as Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Rêverie” (1713) unfurls a lengthy, and exquisite, demonstration of sensory keenness – as “odors, which declined repelling day, / Through temp’rate air uninterrupted stray” – as though to contend that night-time not only compares with, but can exceed, its luminous complement.
First Nights, by the Scottish poet Niall Campbell, is a poised exhibition of darksome energies. In these poems, night-worlds open spaces, and sanction appearances, that the day won’t brook. As the light retreats, uncommon sensations become available, and spectres and memories take dim – but weighty – form. Humanity recedes, and other lives take place, like the foxes who “emerge, proclaiming / our wake as their live element.” Campbell traces that wake, and even inhabits that element, but he does so knowing that his nocturnality is always incomplete, and always less than natural. His intention, therefore, is not to explicate the dark so much as to recognise it – to acknowledge, and wonder at, its apparitions and its strangenesses. Here, he seems frequently to say, is something weird, something incompletely comprehended, but something present, and needing reckoning.
Campbell’s poems probe and inquire, but they do so knowing that violence is revelation’s regular handmaiden. The collection’s opening lyric, “Song,” issues murkly from “the dark gallery / below the sleeping house.” There, the solitary poet “can freely handle / those older tools for harrowing / and planting, turn the bent seed-cradle, / or thumb the axe blade like a harp string.” One feels at once the presence of a venerable ghost: Seamus Heaney’s debut, Death of a Naturalist (1966), began like this, with a poet comparing writing to turf-cutting, and setting out to “dig.” Campbell’s own “harrowing” is an exceptionally potent choice of image. It evokes the breaking up of ploughed earth in preparation for sowing, but it also connotes a tearing, a lacerating, even a plundering. It freights the act of composition with fearful, and fascinating, menace, and makes a gothic figure of its poet. Like agricultural labor, the work of poetry lays waste to make life. Heaney felt this, too: in “Digging,” the poet wields a pen that might be made operate like a spade, but sits in the hand like a gun.
First Nights is saturated, like a bog, by things submerged, and Heaney’s ghost is one among a multitude. One of Campbell’s more stirring conjurations is “The House by the Sea, Eriskay,” which begins:
This is where the drowned climb to land.For a single night when a boat goes down
soaked footprints line its cracked pathas inside they stand open-mouthed at a fire,
drying out their lungs, which hang in their chestslike sacks of black wine.
These are terrible bodies, but through the images that make them – those open mouths, and those wine-sack lungs – the poem enacts a kind of love for them, too. Characteristically, Campbell does not sentimentalize, generalize, or extrapolate; instead, he watches quietly, and in so doing, he communicates a queer sort of sympathy. “Some,” the poem goes on, “will have stripped // down to their washed skin, and wonder / whether they are now more moon than earth.” Others “worry about the passage, / others still think about the deep.” By refusing to simplify or aggregate the lost – or those that mourn them – Campbell creates a poem that won’t reassure, but won’t patronise, either. This is a very different sort of vision from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Ocean” (1833), where “Calmly the wearied seamen rest / Beneath their own blue sea. / The ocean solitudes are blest, / For there is purity.” Campbell’s drowned “share” only “a terrible thirst,” and if this is awful, it is somehow preferable to Hawthorne’s well-meaning abstractions, which make the seamen’s fate tolerable to us by denying them solidity and specificity.
“The House by the Sea, Eriskay” is not only about drowning. Like so many of Campbell’s pieces, it is also about the ways things vanish, and the tenacity with which they return, albeit in changed, and inscrutable, forms. First Nights is alive with symbols, and in this and other ways it is kin to the disorientations of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), which searched the undersides of things for glimpses not of concrete verities, but of thrilling undecidabilities. At his sharpest, Campbell crafts images that, in keeping with Baudelaire’s symbolist dicta, impress themselves mightily while declining any sort of resolution. From the cold, crepuscular vantage of “The Winter Home”:
And there’s the jasmine opening
in garden branches. A white flower,unfurling in the sub degrees,in its pale rush of residing.
This is dusky, wintry growth, efflorescence in extremity. Better still is the flower’s movement, that “pale rush of residing,” a running toward remaining, a speeding toward settling. The blossom, and the poem that has cultivated it, thus incline in two directions at once, like an S curve, or a perpetual wave. In a blooming, Campbell finds the pulsing center of contrary motion.
With First Nights, Campbell shows us that nocturnals are, among other things, poems on the brink. By occupying night’s element, this collection subjects itself, and its reader, to the pull of contraposed currents. At the end of day, we rue a passing, but we also delight at the coming of a new age. We rest and revivify, and – as Nas taught us, in “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994) – we are at the same time sort of dead. Sleep can feel like a drop into whirling chaos, and yet we’re grateful when it arrives with reliable regularity. First Nights explores and exploits tensions like these: the orderliness of its lines and sounds, coupled with the phantoms they contain, make for eerily rhythmic hauntings. At “Midnight,” Campbell confides that
My heart had been repeating oh heart, poor heartall evening. And all because I’d held my child,oh heart, and found that age was in my cup now;
In the two triplets that complete the poem, that refrain – oh heart, poor heart – recurs, tolling the progress of contemplation, and of feeling. The poet learns that one of his lives, that of “a young axman in the forest, / whistler, tree-feller,” is finishing, and that others are commencing: his child’s, but also a different one of his own. That last may be sombrous, and less “swinging,” but it is marked by listening, and by the beating of a “heart grown heavy, heavier, with opening.” By likening fatherhood to a death, Campbell declines to deliver the sort of comforting cliché that issues, incessantly, from parenting blogs and self-help books, not to mention poorer poetry.
First Nights can be troubling, and it’s regularly gloomy, but it isn’t sullen. Maybe, in their pursuit of weirder ways of being, these poems are even edifying. That yearning for a heavier heart, in “Midnight,” may seem contradictory, but then oxymorons are not necessarily unvirtuous, or untrue. The volume is imperfect: at occasional intervals, it falls afoul of symbolism’s constant hazard, the reduction of complex phenomena, and complicated lives, to simple ciphers. But Campbell’s triumphs are many, and they are mighty. This is a poet – a makar, as the Scots might have it – fashioning objects of odd and memorable grace, and it’s to be hoped that we benefit from many more of his views. They are shadowy vistas, but they express meanings of unusual substance, and attitudes of irregular elegance.
Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute, at the University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Senses of the Submarine: A Cultural History of the Undersea. He’s written recently on bogs, the Great Barrier Reef, empathy, urban mutualism, and convict transportation. You can follow him on Twitter at @killian_quigley.