New poetry from Niall Campbell, Theresa Muñoz & Richie McCaffery

Three Voices

Committed to finding new voices, HappenStance have published three debut pamphlets from three very different writers, demonstrating the range and variety of contemporary poetry in Scotland.

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After the Creel Fleet by Niall Campbell evokes the poet’s upbringing in the littoral zone of the Western Isles through its receptivity to images of water, a liminal space both tangible and mythical. The title poem lingers over the rusted coils of rope that once anchored the fishing fleet, where “The frayed lengths knotting into ampersands/tell of this night, and this night, and this”. In ‘Reunion night’ the well of old friendships has run dry, leaving only the “thick silt/of childhood”, while in the prose-poem ‘Interrupting Boccaccio’, a well becomes an underground mirror that promises to show the viewer his true love, but which in the end withholds its reflection and admits no easy conclusions. At the end of the collection, ‘North Atlantic drift’ focuses on two lovers lying in a bath together. Water becomes the lens through which Campbell can interpret these moments and freight them with significance, although this is also a poetry concerned with material things, with the feel of moss and silt and grit. At his best, he rivals Robin Robertson for a poetry that plunges into the silence and terror of the elements, the bespoke mythology of rain-soaked places, while never losing sight of the human experience within them. On the evidence of this superb collection, he is going to make a major contribution to contemporary poetry.

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Although comparatively restrained in her experimentation, Theresa Muñoz demonstrates a real affinity with visual or‘concrete’ poetry in many of the poems that make up her collection Close. Avoiding absolute abstraction, she uses experimental forms to convey direct meanings. The complimentary columns of ‘East Preston Street Cemetery’, for example, invite a multiplicity of readings that emphasise the challenge and comfort of death and mourning. When Muñoz attempts more traditional forms however, the results can sometimes be disappointing. Rooted in locations around Glasgow, some of the less successful poems (‘Skin’, ‘Byres Road’) don’t seem to elicit any particular insight. Events are relayed rather than interpreted, and her language occasionally reaches for the obvious image, rather than the extraordinary. When her work is stripped of all ornamentation though, in poems such as ‘You, in winter’, it achieves a starkness that is forceful and exact, and all the more powerful for that.

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Of the three poets reviewed here, Richie McCaffery demonstrates the greatest fascination with language, an almost tactile love of its sound and shape, especially with words that might seem abstruse or unexpected in a poetic context. In Spinning Plates, he risks using words, such as hessonite, mitosis, or shibboleth, that might alienate the reader but, like Auden, he places them so expertly that the effect is to snap the reader from complacency. These are poems haunted by the figure of a dissolute mother, by stillbirths and miscarriages, birth and death. None of them are without humour, or devoid of a startling connection that raises the painful or banal to something beautiful and profound. In ‘Tesserae’, the mother’s 1970s miscarriage makes the narrator think of “all the lost Roman mosaics/tiny tesserae of vitreous gods”. McCaffery also possesses that rare gift of being able to verbalise what you did not know you already knew – “that ferric tang when you cough” (from ‘Rust’), for example. This is a confident, highly enjoyable collection, and, like all the pamphlets reviewed here, HappenStance should be proud to publish it.

Montmorency

New poetry from
Niall Campbell, Theresa Muñoz
& Richie McCaffery
HappenStance, rrp £4•00, 28pp