The cover image of Fiona Sampson’s seventh collection is bright and strange. Taken from photographer Charles Frèger’s Wilder Mann series (2010-11), it depicts a figure draped in a digitally-printed flowered cloth, holding a hobby-horse model of a reindeer head in a flat field of new-cut grass patched with melting snow. A variety of questions are raised by this surreal image – disguise, the posthuman, climate change – but such evocations are misleading. The dominant themes of Sampson’s work are rather regret for the loss of a traditional rural landscape, the boundary between dream and waking and the search for spiritual fulfilment.
A notable number of poems focus on the body’s encounter with physical disease; for example, ‘Insulin’, ‘Migraine’, ‘Abscess’. In ten lines, ‘Stroke’ successfully combines a precise, prosaic image of the sufferer, ‘like greedy Alice / across the too-small landing’ with the intimation of a stranger presence, ‘eyes liquid and bright as if / something was dissolving them’. Here Sampson brings us from physical collapse directly to the self’s dissolution (into something else?), hinting at the relationship between body and soul.
Sampson often focuses on the fading-away of solid objects. For example, in ‘At Bleddfa’, ‘things’ are in their place, ‘chairs in order / boots by the door’, but by the end of the poem ‘things’ have given way to hollow spaces, ‘empty attics’. Finally ‘in my mind / there was nothing / but a stilled sky’. The emptying of the mind suggests meditation or the momentary calm of spiritual clarity. Likewise, in ‘Daily Bread’, ‘visible being’ is always on the way to disappearing, ‘a cup of coffee / carried’ away, a ‘blur of steam’ fading into the air. Its nebulous quality makes it all but impossible to describe:
the word lying below it
waiting to be spoken you can’t
quite make it out what is it
humming all day out of hearing.
Here the ineffable is given a body in the form of the ‘humming’ metaphor, suggesting a cloud of bees or other insects. But at other points in the collection what is left when the solid ‘things’ are taken away is slightly disappointing; all too often metaphysical images generate a feeling of deflation rather than transcendence, giving way to vagueness and abstraction. For example, ‘The Hunters’ includes a lovely description of ‘black and matted crowns these gold / shadows’; ‘matted’ here creates texture, suggestions of leaf and moss. But later in the poem the speaker asks ‘what can you know / of the trees’ secrets’. This naming of the mystery, a ‘secret’ makes it less compelling; I would prefer to experience a secret, than be told about it, in a poem. In another example, ‘Cob’ describes a house wall made from ‘teeming mud / salted with living things’, which is odd and evocative, but could do without ‘the mysteries of domesticity’ passing judgement on the image. Sampson is concerned to elevate the physical world to that of the mystical, but the imagined landscape offered there is not consistently convincing. ‘Visitors’ describes some endearing horses ‘eating the compost spreading / its scraps and colours’ , but ends on a more idealised than compelling note, ‘as they had dreamt us / walking between them’: is this really what horses would dream of, or does it suggest a rather anthropocentric world view?
The tone of Sampson’s writing is resolutely serious and elevated, suiting the overriding theme of spiritual search, but at times I found myself wishing for a little irony. ‘Caries’ envisages the dentist’s drill as ‘a god’s dark eye / going to and fro’, the experience imbued with strong bodily intensity, but is it possible to intone without a hint of a smile on the subject of tooth decay? ‘The Catch’ of the title promises something more playful than is really offered; apart from the idea of a game, the epigraph from William Cornwallis, ‘like a singing catch, some are beginning when others are ending’ refers to the overlapping voices in a part-song. More could be explored by taking up the voices of the animals, trees and ‘creatures great and small’ (‘The Border’) which populate the collection; instead they are realised on the poet’s terms as symbolic objects, like the dog in ‘Zoi’, a ‘tired child’ with the wisdom of Sappho, or the animals inhabiting the ‘soul / among its imagined fields woods and farms’ (‘The Kingdom’). Sampson’s work will suit those who share her metaphysical vision of the human search for the unrealisable, nostalgic ideal. If there is anything new and different to celebrate, to live in or create – like the bold form of the hybrid being on the book’s cover – then poetry has something more to say.
By Phoebe Power
The Catch by Fiona Sampson, Chatto & Windus, £9.99