REVIEW by Kittie Belltree

NWR Issue 100


by Fiona Sampson

Coleshill, a village in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire, with a population of just 200, has been home to Fiona Sampson for the past fourteen years. It is also the title of Sampson’s latest collection, a powerful, brooding portrait of a landscape both real and imagined.

The collection represents a departure from Sampson’s earlier work, particularly the rhyme and harmonies of Common Prayer and Rough Music, although familiar themes of loss and belonging, myth and spirit, and the limitations of the senses are present here. Sampson’s interest in the philosophy of language, ontology and the relationship between music and poetry is also apparent.

Despite the beauty of the limestone countryside surrounding the village, it is evident from the outset that something is shading the poet’s vision. The baleful prologue, quoting from ‘Le Mort Joyeux’ Baudelaire’s wish to dig his own grave in lush, snail-rich soil, and the reference in ‘Prelude’ to ‘occlusion’ by ‘the unseen thumb’ […] ‘familiar / as the neighbour / I call fear’, introduce the collection’s disquieting psychogeography. Notwithstanding the stirring intimacy of place constructed through the painterly beauty and music of Sampson’s poetic vision, Coleshill’s roots are buried in dark soil. Coleshill may be both ‘a parish of sun / and shade’, but it is the shade that dominates this collection. The ‘Little Virgils’ of the collection’s opening poem, ‘speaking their new / night voices / and they see me, oh they see me,’ present a landscape populated by signals of death, loss and fear.

As with Sampson’s earlier work, there is a musicality to this collection, with emphasis on aural effects in poems like ‘The Changes’, ‘Dreamsongs’, ‘Hymn of the Coleshill Orchards’, and the two sequences, ‘Night Music’ and ‘Songs for Poll’s Bees’. In the latter this works particularly well, capturing the rhythms of nature and what it is to exist in the language of nature (in Heidegger’s sense of language itself as a signifier of being or existence) with a dazzling clarity; remaking that language again and again in the moment:

If he could be glimpsed in the pattern
of limitless addition –
but were not that pattern
for a moment you might have imagined,
a gift of pure grace
from a Perfection that is bodiless
here and everywhere

This poem is one of many in the collection to include religious references, which can at times lead to feelings of heaviness and obscurity. These allusions are most effective when they confront directly the slippage between the self and the moment, when the ambiguity of physical and emotional landscapes echoes the multiplicity of the self. In ‘The Art of Fugue’, Sampson writes:

I miss that girl
crossing the Green
in heels and feather trim,
whom I so nearly
and never was.
Oh, waking
is a rising to light,
something humming
deep and dirty
moves through a suspended life

Sampson’s incisive eye and linguistic fluidity are most apparent in the fourteen sonnets that form the bedrock of Coleshill, offering a framework for her engagement with uncertain themes. The sonnets demonstrate Sampson’s technical subtlety and attention to effects of atmosphere and light:

Downhill… and I met myself,
a pale ghost glimmering
the way a poacher’s torch shines
there – now there – between the trees

so it seems at moments as if
they too are ghosts, walking
in a new light, coming
out of memory towards you….

(‘Sonnet Seven – The Revenant’)

It seems that whilst she was working on Coleshill, Sampson’s perspective was coloured by the difficult circumstances surrounding her resignation as editor of Poetry Review. While the seasonal rhythms and powerful presence of history evoked by Sampson’s polished observations offer some sense of peace, it is not enough to balance her dark, uncompromising vision of a dreamscape that is ultimately a deathscape. The ‘Little Songs of Malediction’ that punctuate the collection underscore these repetitions and patterns of nature, reflecting both the constant recurrence of death, and our own insignificance against the natural cycle.

Nowhere is this suggested more strongly than in ‘The Death Threat’, which brilliantly encapsulates the collection’s overriding expression of death and dislocation from inner and outer landscapes:

He changes shape. The

autumn nights

permit this, with their mint of smells,

the ash-and-damp notes of a dream

you remember, blurred as wings

flurrying into a windscreen:

huge eyes, blackened by the lights,

because sometimes he’s an owl. Or he’s a swan,

or Caucasian male, clean-shaven, age unknown –

or this plumed and gleaming angel

at the door, with a knife.

While Sampson’s technical virtuosity is unquestionable, the very power and intensity of her voice through the collection can feel oppressive and absolute. I would like to have seen more of the promise of spring hinted at in ‘Coleshill Resurrection’ and ‘The Soloist’, to offset the indefatigable darkness.


previous review: Warriors
next review: The Vanity Rooms


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