In the Life of the Night: Review of Noctuary by Niall Campbell
Having kept diaries throughout my twenties coinciding with the births of my own children, I was especially keen to read Noctuary, and to reflect on the idea of writing at that liminal time before sleep or between bouts of sleep as is so often the case in the early years of being a parent.
The opening poem’s reference to midnight and the repetition of the word throughout the collection brought to mind Coleridge’s poem, ‘Frost at Midnight’. I could sense the contentment of the house asleep, the baby close, and the opportunity to write both in Coleridge’s poem and in several of Niall’s poems, ‘The inmates of my cottage, all at rest, / Have left me to that solitude,’ (‘Frost at Midnight’); ‘…I do the rounds, checking the bedrooms / for breath, the doors for their safe fastening,’ ‘Keeping the Poacher’s Light’,
…and quiet in the house, night in the garden,
I was free to play that different game;
up late with the world, my small life leapt,
I rolled its dice across the writing desk.
Poems reveal the sense of awe, and worry that comes with early parenthood, ‘Little boy, my little cornstalk boy / shaking through your fever;’ and, ‘little shaking chest, little shaking lantern, / can you hear your father’s voice?’ (‘First Illness’)
The whole collection has a beautifully compressed lyric style. Of forty-three poems only one runs to two pages, three just take the poem over to a second page, of the remaining thirty-nine poems, the average length is 12-14 lines and this concision adds to the sense of both a communion between father and son at an intimate liminal time, and of poems as songs of praise for the young life,
It’s 1 a.m. and someone’s knocking
at sleep’s old, battered door – and who
could it be but this boy I love,
‘The Night Watch’
I heard him crying in his sleep,
my two-month-old – and marvelled…’
The compressed style and simple language contrasts with complex themes resulting in a collection deserving reflection and rereading.
Oh son, while others
these carried on,
armoured and silent,
There’s a range of melodies running through the collection, from the childlike beat, and a cue to clap of ‘Clapping Song’, echoed again in ‘Returning to Work’ to the lullaby, ‘First Illness’. There’s also the shock of what might be in store for the young son in the poem, ‘Glasgow’, ‘…That place, / they are cruel there. And beautiful.’
I love the sense of crossing time: the poet-narrator is taken back to his own childhood in poems such as The Address; and there’s reflection on the midway point in ‘Thirties’; and in ‘The Water Carrier’,
Midway home, midway from the source, my dream-sun
bleaching the sky, what could be better than
dry road ahead, my flooded road behind?
‘The Water Carrier’
Recurring motifs within and between poems: heart, tree, branches, gates, doors, a bird, a drummer, dice, midnight and a horse bringing to mind the carousel above the baby’s cot, mentioned in ‘Keeping the Poacher’s Light’, ‘... turn his carousel again – / this freed horse galloping the music’s grounds, / the world ignored as it runs out, stamp, stamp,’
Noctuary is a reflective tender work marrying something of the poet-narrator’s awe, the mood of early parenthood, a period almost oneiric when you look back to it, with the mood of the time of day in which the poems were written, a hymn to the liminal.