Review by Declan Ryan
Fiona Sampson’s The Catch (Chatto & Windus) opens with ‘Wake’, an arresting, graceful poem operating somewhere at the edge of consciousness. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to the collection as a whole, a book which finds her in fine, new voice. Evidence of a shift in style is immediate, unmissable: with Sampson having shed almost all punctuation and capitalisation her lines move differently. Reading these new poems involves, occasionally, a little more unpacking of lines, a possible multiplicity and felicity of thought. The chief implication, however, is that one is forced to read more watchfully, more alertly; to slow down. To go back to ‘Wake’ and its ‘first light’ which is a ‘slim cat/coming home through Top Field’ (slim is brilliantly chosen, calling back to mind the ‘light’ in the first line but also having a dull echo of ‘limb’ to help us see it walking, the oddity of the simile falling away into a just-rightness as it goes) the line which fully tunes our ear to Sampson’s syntax comes towards the end: ‘any which way here’s another’. Not only here, but throughout, Sampson has found a way of displaying deliberation, of showing a shift of mind through image and gesture. As a result – at their best – these new poems manage to do a number of extraordinarily difficult things subtly, stylishly and with the appearance of ease.
That’s not to say that The Catch is a study in solipsism or introspection. The ‘daily bread of thought’ (‘Daily Bread’) which Sampson coins is a just phrase, the ideas which are unfolded in the book taking place among creatures and crops, in houses and fields. Thanks to Sampson’s new style, which allows the poems to dart and slip, this is a light book, in its most lucid, illuminated sense. Many of the poems are praise songs. The handling of joy, ecstasy and delight without being cloying or mawkish is extremely difficult, often inhibited by the risk of embarrassment, of too great a ladling of sentiment. Yet here, on several occasions, we see such happy catchings – the collection’s title, for all its multiplicity of resonances, can’t but remind one of Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’ and its ‘enthralled/Catching of happiness’. One poem is, explicitly, a praise song. ‘Before Dawn’ displays many of the collection’s prime concerns, a need to offer consolation, a connectedness to the land and the creatures in it, and the idea of time moving past us, of time as a presence: ‘nothing we worry about/ now will worry us/ when we’re old these griefs/ will be rumours too’. It is also a poem where to look – to be connected by observation and by having walked among things – is to honour and be honoured by them: ‘he has seen the shivering/small hearts the eyes//that watch him as he watches them/year after year/he praises them with his eyes pale’.
This sense of the passing of time, of being caught in a tide of history, is examined affectingly elsewhere too. In ‘Rite’, where the opening suggests a narrator witnessing a May Day festival, or field hands at work, but soon pivots and deepens with the lines
from here it’s too far
to see too cold
too long ago
making their way
as if towards
us as if
towards some other
there is a poignant sense of possessing the exposures and dependences of childhood as well as the complications of adult self awareness. It isn’t only here that ideas of childishness, or perhaps more accurately child-like-ness, are introduced and explored. To live among a world of memory, populated as it seems to be throughout the book, vivid and animate, is to be a child of sorts, at least in comparison to the bigger, slower, older rhythms of the world. When we encounter a memory in ‘Neighbours’ of seeing pansies’ ‘lion faces/black and gold/these were new/as I was new’ early in the book, it reads like an inheritor of the Wordsworthian spot of time, a romantic urge to remember and replay. As our understanding is deepened throughout the collection, however, this state of childhood, of formative, idyllic memory, has adult light cast on it, and becomes more than simple reminiscence. On re-reading, this sense of newness is one which Sampson – through these poems – attempts to salvage and transport into adulthood. In ‘The Kingdom’ ‘their witness/ is astonishment’ and that word, with its open-mouthed vulnerability becomes a cornerstone of the book as a whole.
Perhaps, for all its light, its joy and celebration, the reason why the book seems so rapt and tender is because of the necessary, sobering grief which runs mostly invisible underneath its hymns and songs. The drive towards delight occasioned by the happiness which animates the poems, the rich seam of love towards creatures and people, seems less in spite of than because of the shadow-figure of death which stalks the lines like the dream animals of the road in ‘The Border’. There is a developed, looming awareness of time because of its increased value, ‘the human body is a heavy machine’ in ‘Insulin’ and this corporeal weight which must be carried has a limit, one made urgent and terrifying in the face of all this light. The late sequence ‘A Path Through The Trees’ is, uncoincidentally, full of journeying, and its promise that ‘you will go on here/even after/you have left although/you just arrived’ is deeply moving when it comes, at least in part because of the childlike innocence of its assertion, the gesture being a fragile sounding of reassurance, rather than certainty, hope rather than creed. Another phrase from the sequence seems to sum up Sampson’s new vision, the world, and our span within it – ‘the brief//brightness/between the trees’. The Catch is the work of a writer who has found a way of building thoughtful, consolatory poems which are up to the task of defying death within the bright, singing, Stone House of love.
Declan Ryan is editor of Wild Court www.wildcourt.co.uk