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This review is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

The Song Carries niall campbell, Moontide (Bloodaxe) £9.95

When an author opens his first collection with a poem called ‘Song’, he’s making two clear statements. He’s claiming allegiance to a major tradition: English Renaissance poetry is full of songs, often to be accompanied by that blameless lute; so, later and luteless, is the work of Romantic poets such as Blake. And he’s gently insisting that he possesses a poetic ear, an organ apparently absent or at least defective in some of his contemporaries. He gives himself eight lines to prove the point:

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 that isn’t quite what we were expecting, so much the better. In two quatrains, Niall Campbell creates part of the world which informs so many of his poems – the islands of South Uist and Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides – and, better still, finds exactly the right tone for it: intimate but unfussy, rapt yet practical. There’s a hands-on authenticity here: he knows these tools so well that he could probably do without the lit match; and he knows how to thumb an axe-blade ‘like a harp string’. The movement of the poem towards its final sharp surprise is perfectly controlled: consider, for instance, the deft ...


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