Welcome to the latest weekly installment of our blogs written by poets about what they have been doing since the lockdown began. We’re calling it From the Front Lines: with the public being urged to stay at home to hinder the progress of Covid-19, it often feels as if our front door is the front line. Today, we hear from poet Niall Campbell.
My lockdown has not been a time for full books – more for snippets: the hands washed (again) then Ted Kooser saying ‘to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page’; the dishwasher emptied and then Ella Frears ‘moonlight, moonlight, moonlight / until it was no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling / and then the thing itself’; a few tries at teaching my son to tell the time, moving the big hand and little hand to random points on the face (and trying not to think of it as a metaphor for now) and there is Jen Hadfield “This is bliss / this / no, this / no this’.
It has been quiet – and more than a little bit like waiting for what is to follow next. Last week I read a sentence or two of how Marcus Crassus, a Roman politician, was killed by having molten gold poured down his throat. It is an interesting image (putting the violence to one side) – his thirst for wealth made literal – the golden throat as though he were a patron-saint of singers, a poet in the pure moment of the poem. But I find myself asking – what happened next?
Did they bury him like that? And somewhere in the earth there is a pile of bones with a thin gold flute, the setting of the throat, sleeping in the ribcage. Did it pool in his stomach like a gold plate? Did they do it – pour the gold – torture – then go into his body to retrieve it? Does this not diminish the act – is there not something more to leaving the gold? Whatever happened next was not detailed.
All of which is to say that, aside from cooking and home-schooling and trying to write, I have found myself unconsciously drawn to thinking of what happens next. In an attempt to keep my brain awake I have gone back to chess puzzles. I once thought I was pretty good – but you get older and realise you are playing the school recorder whereas others are out there playing the clarinet. But still, there is the admiration for the game and these puzzles. These mainly consist of a random array of pieces with the test of finding a way to get Black to Check in 3 or White to Check in 2 – they are wonderful. You are dropped into a moment, after so much has happened on the board, and asked to follow it through to conclusion.
Chess is the ultimate interpretation of what next – after each player has made just a single move, the board could be any one of 400 permutations; after two moves each it has 197,000 possible permutations, after just four moves each it is over 319 billion. The good player keeps making decisions about what follows (the bad player has their decisions made for them).
I hate the big budget movies that focus on the big event, the world changed, only to end after the point of it all being saved – without risking to ask ‘saved for what’ – what now, what next? I think we are about to find out what happens when we reach that point – I don’t see how things can go back to how it was. But I have to stop here – the morning has been busy and peaceful – I read John Glenday saying “The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one”.
Niall Campbell (born 1984), is a Scottish poet. He has published two poetry collections and a poetry pamphlet. He was a recipient of the Eric Gregory Award in 2011, winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2014, and was recipient of the Saltire First Book of the Year award. In 2019, his second collection Noctuary (Bloodaxe) was nominated for the Forward Poetry Prize.