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Book Review: Donald Campbell [Poet], FUGITIVES by Donald Smith

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cover-dc-refugees.jpgFUGITIVES by Donald Campbell

This is a substantial collection of poetry, and not as the title might evoke a hard-to-grasp or ephemeral offering. It encompasses twenty five years of work, since Campbell’s ‘Selected Poems’ appeared in 1990.

In addition, the volume is helpfully introduced and annotated in a way that sets Donald Campbell’s notable achievements as a playwright in the context of his enduring commitment to poetry. As Fugitives shows, the muse has continued to befriend her poet long after his active engagement with theatre production had come to a close.

Campbell is a poet who communicates directly with readers or listeners. He is not caught up with his own cleverness but ever attentive to essentials of shared language and experience. Campbell the playwright is a fine maker of songs, and his poems evidence a continuing fascination with traditional forms and metrical structures. This is underpinned by a keenly attuned ear that negotiates confidently between the rhythms of spoken language and the patterns of metrical structure.

The collection contains fine poems about Edinburgh, Campbell’s home city, and about his native Caithness. These are lyric poems of memory and emotion. There is an interesting sequence about fellow poet Norman MacCaig, and a fine group of poems responding to the paintings of the Victorian folk artist Ned Holt. These works reflect a generosity towards kindred artists which is also evident in assured translations from the Gaelic of Rob Donn and Native American poets, among others.

There are more English than Scots poems here in contrast to Campbell’s earlier collections. He reflects on this in the introduction, wondering if a move away from frequent live readings led to more focus on the appearance of his poetry on the page. My feeling would be that Campbell’s instinct is always for common understanding and his sense of audience informs the English work.

There is reflective remembering in this book which is captured by its title. Yet whether in English or Scots the distinctive Campbell voice sounds out. This for example confers dignity and grace on Jenny Clow, Robert Burns’ uncelebrated working class lover in Edinburgh:

              The lass that kissed the poet’s brow
              Lies cold and lifeless in the grave.
              There are no songs for Jenny Clow

‘Keelie Kyrielle’is a typically skilful conjunction of vernacular Scots with poetic form:

               The common folk gar me despair.
               They ken what’s richt, yet winna dare
               Tak owre the reins, rule over it.
               Thank God I feel some keelie in me yet!

               Myself, I ken, am just the same
              As all the rest. I share the blame.
              I’m feart and lazy, apathetic yet.
              Thank God I feel some keelie in me yet!

Alongside memory and love in these poems there is defiance and determination, as in this recent poem:

               I dread to die an old man’s death
              and mean to fight until the end
              to save my wits, my strength, my breath.

Grace Note has done a fine thing with this wide ranging late harvest of a key poet in the Scottish Renaissance second wave. Donald Campbell has carried his distinctive voice into a new era.


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