NORTHWORDS NOW, ISSUE 19 AUTUMN/WINTER 2011
Review by Aonghas MacNeacail
Angus Peter Campbell may be counted as singularly blessed in having had as English teacher, in his Oban High School days, the inspirational Iain Crichton Smith, with, later, the encouragement of Sorley MacLean, then Writer in Residence, while he was a student at Edinburgh University.
As MacLean observed in the West Highland Free Pressaround 20 years ago; “I have no doubts that Angus Peter Campbell is one of the few really significant living poets in Scotland, writing in any language.” Whether he needed the support of any of those great predecessors, or not, MacLean’s assessment reads even more persuasively today, with a new bilingual Gaelic and English poetry collection complemented by a collection of short stories in English.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, prose and poetry share certain characteristics. As Campbell observes, in a recent Scottish Review of Books interview, ‘....the contemporary world seems to me to be straight out of the Gaelic folk tradition: magical and fragmented, without any seeming ‘logic’ weighing it down. The capacity in ancient stories to move from A to Z on a wisp of straw,for example, strikes me as being utterly modern.’ Which is another way of saying that the surrealism infusing his work is as old as the human imagination, and perpetual.
Tha ability to view subjects from unexpected perspectives also allows a ludic element to slip along beneath the surface, ready at any time to reveal itself in satirical or gently humorous forms. In the title poem of Aibisidh (‘Alphabet’, which he renders as ‘ABC’), he resolves the dilemna implicit in one alphabet making do with eighteen letters, against the other’s twenty-six, by creating two seperate compositions, based on song-titles, each in the spirit of the other.
‘Aiseirigh nam Marbh’ (‘The Resurrection of the Dead’) takes us on a journey, from Balivanich through Berwick and Baden Baden to Buenos Aires, via burial grounds and bards, taking in Passchendaele, The Twin Towersand Saigon, with recognisable snatches of song, and the names cited of poets, including Mandelstam, Dante, Iain Crichton Smith and Jock Stein (playing football with St Theresa!) – that edge of humour in no way undermining the sense that this loosely structured poem is an affirmative kind of hymn.
His poem to Marina Tsvetaeva, in its fragmentary layout, evokes the Russian’s tragic life, and death under Stalin, while subtly touching on the damage done to his own culture : the imperialism is implicit, birds provide a delicate unifying metaphor. ‘Iteagan Hiortach’ (St Kildan Feathers’) stays on home territory, and history, which places those remote islands in juxtaposition with the Crimea. Whether he is being absurdist or satirical, there is always a “something else” going on in these poems. Human identity, at both the individual and collective level – and in the face of a dislocative world, clearly matters and is subtly examined in poem after poem.
The collection is suffused with a sense of song. There are a couple of sonnets – one translated into Italian. Campbell’s translations are themselves an interesting phenomenon, sometimes straying considerably from the literal, while always retaining the sense of the original, and never failing to animate the reader’s imagination. In that the collection is a kind of dialogue between loss and affirmation, it doesn’t take sides, but there’s no question that the effect is affirmative.
Although Invisible Islands is in English, each story is given a Gaelic title, which may just give a clue to its theme. ‘Liursaigh’, the first piece, derives its ‘Liur’ from, according to Dwelly’s Dictionary, ‘Noise, clamour, prating’, and featuresan island which, having been cleared of its people, and repopulated, must also live with its ghosts. ‘Craolaigh’ draws on, and touches on, the broadcast media; ‘Mònaigh’ has mountains: and so on.
Such choices, inevitably, create opportunities for the surrealist wit which is so characteristic of Angus Peter Campbell’s writing, but which he uses towards ends which are quietly satirical and gently moralistic. He brings together scholarship, cod and actual. He doesn’t preach, but he does invite us to draw conclusions. And it works, because we sense an imagination engaged in the precise details of everyday realities, with sharp digs at the ways of bureacracies, but sensitive also to history, tradition, the possibilities of magic, and the vagaries of fashion.
Laughter may be drawn from these stories, but also grief. They may travel across the world, as many islanders have done. Though eloquently English they are quintessentially Gaelic in spirit, and, being rooted in the author’s own tradition, told with the conviction of a natural storyteller, they become universal.