Night Thoughts: Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson’s haunting new collection, Coleshill, pulls off the difficult trick of evoking a real geographical place while at the same time transforming it into something magical and other.

The village of Coleshill lies at the intersection of three counties. These are profoundly liminal poems, obsessed by the boundaries between spaces and states of being. Over half the poems in the book are either explicitly set at night / twilight or else feature dreams or ghosts. Many of the remainder emphasize haze, blurring, shifting and floating. Reality often seems at risk of dissolving or being subsumed by internal forces.

Sampson is particularly good on the transforming power of darkness. “At night each thing / smells sweet / and full of signals”. Her dream poems unnerve with quiet menace: an incubus, “half absence, half beast / grown fat on lack”, is more internal projection than supernatural visitant, and all the more disturbing for it. Night-time suggests a lack of solidity (blossom is “hallucinatory / in darkness”; “Walls stand at angles / to the day”; when the phone rings in the middle of the night “in the beginning / passes its conjuror’s / hand over chaos”).

In her excellent Newcastle / Bloodaxe poetry lectures (published as Music Lessons), Sampson casts silence as both an “anti-poem” that threatens to “overcome the text” and as “a tabula rasa, a stage that is ready for language”. Night and twilight play a similar role in Coleshill. The imagination can create shapes out of the darkness just as it can breathe poems against or out of silence. When the threat of an imagined attacker “changes shape” in “Sonnet two – The Death Threat”, it is partly because “The autumn nights / permit this”. The poem “Dreamsongs” struggles to retrieve something distinct: “if only these dim shapes / would form that word / you can’t remember”. That incubus arises out of “formless dark” (a loaded phrase for a poet who has written so insightfully on poetic form).

As the collection progresses, the individual poems build a complex and multi-layered portrait of both a place and an observing consciousness. But those individual poems can also dazzle in their own right.

“The Art of Fugue” is a stunning display of targeted ambiguity, where the speaker of the poem contemplates a “girl / crossing the Green / in heels and feather trim / whom I so nearly / and never was.” That “whom” is a moment of subtle, rule-breaking brilliance: technically, the verb to be takes a complement in the same case rather than an object in a different one. Strict grammar would insist on “who”, but the dislocation here is precisely the point. “Whom” makes the line, alienating the speaker from the girl in syntax as well as meaning – and setting up a dizzying payoff at the end of the poem, where “the girl crossing the Green” may or may not become the speaker of the poem, turning “her head on a pillow / barred with light.”

Sampson, a concert violinist before she began publishing poems, isn’t one to throw musical metaphor around casually: “The Art of Fugue” evokes a musical form built on repetition and recurrence, and at the same time chimes with fugue‘s etymological origin in ideas of flight. It is a wonderful poem, not least for having the conviction to preserve its ambiguity to the end.

“Sonnet seven – The Revenant” is more explicit in stating “I met myself, / a pale ghost glimmering”, and ends with the memorable: “my younger self ascended through me / like a shiver, as I turned / toward the house below.” This is thrilling, disturbing stuff. Poems about doubles are hard to pull off, but Sampson judges the balance perfectly.

Alongside this poetic struggle with darkness and silence, Coleshill contains some evocative poetry of place. There are beautiful images of the surrounding countryside (“paths cut / through corn… that clean opening, / as if the path / were a pattern // for life”; “Your hand shifts… among twigs, ripe fruit / and the corona / of insects”). Time and again you get the sense of a real place that anchors – and strangely magnifies – Sampson’s liminal dream-world.

This is a rare and beautiful book. In “The Changes”, the silence “stirs / as if to say / Before you were, I am.Coleshill is as poignant a response to the anti-poem of silence as I’ve read in a long time.

Coleshill, Fiona Sampson, Chatto, 2013
Music Lessons, Fiona Sampson, Bloodaxe, 2010