Angus Peter Campbell’s new poetry collection, Aibisidh/ABC, its poems composed in Gaelic with English translation, and in one instance Italian, is a collection that floods the senses with surges of original imagery. Water-related descriptions are apt here. Images of moving water, of tidal energy, predominate, giving Campbell’s poetry a cyclical underpinning; here, death, no more than life, does not have the last word.
The impression from the outset is Campbell’s collection projects an awareness that he and the Gaelic culture he describes are between places. The paradox in this collection is that somehow the speaker is both adrift and yet retains a strong sense of rootedness. This is particularly clear in ‘Eadar an Cuilitheann’s an Cuan Sgìth’, a beautifully and tenderly described memory of an exchange between Sorley MacLean and Campbell: ‘“Cuir mar seo e,” fhreagair thu,/“gun deach m’ altram eadar Beinn is Cuan.”’ (‘“Put it like this”, you replied,/“that I was born between the Cuillin and the Minch.”’). Campbell uses the landscape to describe not only MacLean’s position of ‘cinnt is strì’ (‘faith and doubt’) but also the legacy that Campbell has inherited from the older poet and is now making sense of in his own way.
This collection explores themes of childhood, aging and rebirth. Manifestations of childhood are present in ‘Sneachda’ (‘Snow’) which has an affinity with Joyce’s imagery in the short story ‘The Dead’, in which snow covers all of Ireland, effectively silencing the land and its history. In Campbell’s poem, the snow is a subjective vision. The illusions of age and time melt overnight and the sense of rebirth is palpable; spring comes and children are heard playing outside. In other poems remembrances of childhood and the poet’s connection to his family filter through, like memories of the sunlight shining through the bottle of citronella in his father’s shed in ‘Gathan’ (‘Rays’).
The subject of language is also touched by the same sense of memory and connectivity in the middle section of the book. In ‘Aibisidh’ (‘ABC’), musical memories become a cacophony of voices; fragments of song-lines bring into being the figures of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nancy from Oliver among others, their voices mingling with familiar lines from the Scottish song tradition and hymns. The poem gives the impression of a radio in the poet’s mind being moved from one station to another, just as the mind moves around fragments of memory.
It is in this section that Campbell’s concern for Gaelic is at its clearest, yet the celebratory moments ensure that these poems do not fall into simple lamentation. In ‘Eapaig’ (‘Epic’), Campbell envisions a new time for his native literature in which the creator of the next Gaelic epic rises from the bottom of the sea. Interestingly, this new creator will not belong to the earth: ‘Bidh Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ mar chreag dhi, marbh, balbh.’ (‘Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ will be like a rock to her, dead, dumb.’)
‘Gràmar’ (‘Grammar’) is a particularly poignant poem. The sense of separation, portrayed so beautifully in an understated mention of emigrant ships, can also be felt in relation to the way language is used and passed on. Campbell’s warning is clear in the line ‘mar gun cumadh tu saoghal le cèilidh’ (‘as if you could retain a world through a ceilidh’).
There are questions regarding the direction of the Gaelic language in the 21st century – the bareness of an imagined Gaelic bookstall, issues relating to Gaelic Orthographic Conventions (GOC), the use of Dwelly’s dictionary, and the underlying danger that Gaelic may one day be as obscure in meaning as birdsong. Of course the real dichotomy in Campbell’s book is that while poetry is food to him, (described as salt herring in ‘Bàrdachd’, and as a replacement for apples, potatoes and milk in ‘Maothalach’), his role as a poet in relation to a language in a state of flux means that emotion must engage with linguistic wisdom in his poems. Campbell achieves this with poise.
Campbell is aware of the fragmentary nature of lives, memories and connections to the Gaelic language. The greatest strength of this new collection is this awareness, and the poet’s ability to resurrect history and myth, to make them sing so vibrantly that the grave is forgotten and its fragments and bones take on new shapes.
Dr Emma Dymock teaches at the University of Edinburgh and has edited Sorley MacLean's letters for publication.
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