The Catch by Fiona Sampson, book review: The mark of a poet of a high order

Sampson's new book contemplates a mystery encapsulated in its title: a catch is round-song or canon, continually ending and beginning

Sean O'Brien
Thursday 03 March 2016 13:48 GMT
Fluidity of form: Author Fiona Sampson
Fluidity of form: Author Fiona Sampson

The catch opens with "Wake", where first light is sensed "like a slim cat / coming home through Top Field". The poem ends: "feet fall feet lift / nothing to it", an echo of TS Eliot's lines in "East Coker" about the cycles of rural life, "Feet rising and falling. / Eating and drinking. Dung and death." Fiona Sampson's new book is not religious in Eliot's sense, but it contemplates a mystery encapsulated in its title: a catch is round-song or canon, continually ending and beginning.

The Catch, like its predecessor, Coleshill, is alert to the marginal states of dream, memory and imagination encountered at dusk or dawn, or while driving at night. In a recent dispute in The Times Literary Supplement, a correspondent proposed that "the truth of value-knowledge [such as religious belief] is lived, not 'known'", and Sampson's poems, with their light touch and open forms, suggest that moments of recognition, of reconciliation, or of sensed connection, cannot simply be folded up for later use or nailed to the wall like improving mottos. In the fluid "Arcades", "In the morning air / voices fill and empty / beside the barn under / the walnut trees / one continual linked pouring / the way arcades go." The point is not to possess such occasions and recognitions, but to live them as they travel through us.

It would be easy, and tempting, to allow such an approach to harden into style and attitude, given the human desire "to touch / something that's shifting / out of sight / even as you / recognize it / if you do". But Sampson, seeing experience, time and imagination as a unified field, admits darkness and friction alongside love and illumination: "Pain comes singing / down the vein / its high erratic song / pealing in the darkness of my room."

She can also render complexity of feeling with the economy that marks a poet of a high order. "Before Dawn" seeks to hold in balance the fatherly affection of an elderly male friend with his unassuageable childlessness and the consolations of his life spent among the creatures of the fields and woods.

The aspiration to balance out the sense of loss is, as perhaps it must be, unsuccessful, but the poem issues in an affirmative melancholy whose ring is wholly truthful.

What also marks The Catch out is its unselfconsciousness. The poems get on with their work, and at times they seem almost to walk off the page. In "Albania" two men sit on a ferry: "we have learnt / steadiness in lives / not much visited / by wonder working lives / which sacrifice us yet / do not extinguish us / here we are carried / over the shining sea. And just like in stories / our beautiful women / are waiting just one day / away just one more day."

That rich plainness is enviable.

Chatto and Windus £10. Order at £9 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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