Beginnings: Review by Alison Brackenbury
‘The Catch’ by Fiona Sampson, ‘All That Falling’ by Tom Weir and ‘Queen, Jewel, Mistress’ by Ruth Stacey
Review by Alison Brackenbury
‘Like a singing catch, some are beginning when others are ending.’ These mysterious words by Sir William Cornwallis form the epigraph to Fiona Sampson’s new collection, The Catch. Its first poem is called ‘Wake’. Yet the next poem plunges into ‘the deep dream place’, ending:
haven’t you arrived
once again at
at the brink of dream?
The poems which blend into The Catch are often deep in dream and night, working just beneath the mind’s surface: ‘the word lying below it / waiting to be spoken’. Stripped of punctuation, they have a characteristic mid-line pulse, where syntax shifts: ‘You wake and find yourself / dreaming you walk / an avenue of trees’ […]
Sampson deliberately distances her poems from anecdotal detail.
in the dark, overheated flat
South Coast England nineteen eighty-something
gone like a summer storm above the sea.
Memories of a grandmother’s jewellery move through a blurring of dates into a wide, vaguer, landscape. Her many poems set in the countryside typically contain only one definite landmark: ‘the barn’, ‘the hayfield’. The world of work sounds only as echoes: ‘the voices / of roofers’. Colours become stylised, as in heraldry or myth. Pansies have ‘lion faces / black and gold’.
Sampson writes of the pansies ‘these were new / as I was new’. One of the freshest elements of The Catch is a recurring view of the world from the beginning: ‘when I was / still a child’. She is a bold explorer of time: ‘you were not yet born / and only I remember’. Her poetry can catch the strangeness of a terrible event. In ‘Stroke’ the wondering, celebratory vocabulary is transformed: ‘eyes liquid and bright as if / something was dissolving them’
Her ‘creatures’ are amongst Sampson’s most powerful creations. She catches the relish of animal life: ‘dogs sorting / the fine morning smells’. There is an unusual, tender focus upon the ‘young dog the colour / of Greek coffee’ and a raw delight in (imagined?) bear’s fur: ‘coarse soft / roots that reek / of lanolin’.
Even dogs in The Catch ‘wander […] pondering / a long dream’. Certain words and themes recur obsessively. I suspect this will prove a problem for some readers. But I was won over by these poems, which I felt had a gathering power, like the piling of clouds in a summer sky. Many seem linked to a particular season of emotion: ‘like half made beasts / his dreams swim among hers’.
‘Wake’, The Catch begins. ‘Collateral’ wakes sharply into the politics of Sampson’s landscape, with its ‘lowland / airbase’. The line break startles. Sampson’s brief, often two-beat lines strike home:
say the spills
of sunlight say
the threshing leaves.
The Catch’s final, title poem replaces trance with tension
You want – but something
holds you back
Consonants are repeated, subtly, across line or stanza breaks:
the story broken
that you’d told
yourself as you lay
in the brief
between the trees.
Are all the preceding poems of Sampson’s ecstatic collection only a brief / brightness’, their ‘story broken’? It is a remarkable ending.
‘Some first lines’ – begin the notes on the inside cover of All That Falling, Tom Weir’s first full collection. I am a poet who spends approximately 30% of my writing life wrestling with first lines. So I scanned Weir’s confident questions and intriguing snatches of speech with admiration bordering on envy. Then I read ‘We talked all morning about the horse…’ I am a reader who forgets most of what I have read within thirty seconds of reading it. But instantly I knew that I had read this poem before, and, at its memory, envy slunk away, ashamed.
The poem, ‘Day Trippin’ ’ opens Weir’s book. In deceptively casual couplets, it tells the story of an outing with a child who has been promised a ride on a horse:
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched
as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand, You spent
the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.
It is very difficult to be so understated; to avoid emotional outpouring in favour of mercilessly presented facts. They are merciless both to the speaker, who has misled the child, and the reader, who cannot help. The child stays beyond consolation, by parent or art: ‘rowing boats left the harbour and you / sat still, refusing to join another queue’. As I am a reviewer, I must step back from child (and horse) long enough to point out the effectiveness of the couplet’s final rhyme: the only noticeable rhyme during the whole trip.
But Weir’s poems can open with a waking nightmare: ‘I wake to the sound of you screaming again’.Their beginnings are lost in mystery. Why, in ‘The Search’, has someone known to Weir walked on to moorland?
By the time I find you I’m too tired
and angry and upset to ask […]
so I don’t. I just lay down beside you and listen
to the sound of your breath, the soft scratch of your anorak
against the snow […]
This is writing which seems completely open to its subject, but remains tough, in its steady observation and in the firm construction of the poems.
The same directness appears in ‘Monsoon’ and its account of flood victims: ‘the children held high / above their heads like an offering to a god nobody believes in’. I write this amongst newspapers full of pictures of the Cumbrian floods. Good poetry is often prophetic, unfortunately.
All That Falling can descend to sensuous endings: to owls with ‘feathers as cold and soft to touch as ash’. Sound softens as meaning hardens. Weir’s poems are extraordinarily painful and uniquely rewarding. His short last poem, ‘The Sadness’, begins: ‘It’s not here yet but it’s getting close’. ‘It’ is in ‘every street light from here to Saltaire’. There is an odd defiant expansiveness in that final name. Despite the many sharp sadnesses of this book, I was left with a keen desire to read whatever Weir publishes next.
I must make two confessions before beginning my praise of Ruth Stacey’s first collection, Queen, Jewel, Mistress: A History of the Queens of England & Great Britain in Verse. First, I am a Republican. Secondly, my first collection included ‘Dreams of Power’ a narrative poem about Arbella Stuart, the bookish spiky cousin of James I, who might well have agreed with one of Stacey’s epigraphs, from Shakespeare: ‘I swear, ’tis better to be lowly born’.
Stacey’s own opening poem urges her readers to turn from kings, and
to the voices of queens
Her poems are the liveliest of history lessons. I kept a bookmark in her excellent endnotes. But these are only a beginning. Have you heard of Wulfthryth, Queen of Wessex, whose lucid description of herself also hints, delicately, at an England which began with more wild ground and woodland: ‘my eyes were green / like young birch leaves’?
Stacey’s prose reveals networks of dynastic marriages. Her poems present varied passions. ‘Æthelflæd of Damerham’ brings to life, in sensuous description, one Queen’s brief marriage, widowhood through violence, and remarriage. The poem begins:
two leaves drift down
brushing against each other
the royal smell lingers
on my skin
all men desire me
The short lines are airy and urgent by turns, with eloquent use of the space between stanzas to show drastic change, the passing of time – or guilty omission.
For Stacey does not whitewash her subjects. A Queen accused of murdering her stepson simply says, of her own son: ‘he was King he was my blood’ (‘Ælfthryth’). The poems are strongest in images, as in ‘Matilda of Scotland’: ‘The royal blood of Wessex: red like a rosehip / beneath my white skin […] I shed my Saxon name like an adder skin: Edith.’
Stacey’s ventures into longer rhyming lines, of variable lengths, can lead to distortion. Emma of Normandy’s words falter: ‘I will marry him, if Queen again I shall be’. But the poems are skilfully structured. Elizabeth Wydeville, after the death of Edward IV, ‘a bloated, frivolous King’, recalls their shared youth: ‘I remember […] love thick like sticky sap’. The poem’s ending repeats its beginning.
The beginning and the end were, I thought, this history’s peaks. Victoria springs off page 100 in furious italics: ‘Duty is a slapped mouth, sewn shut with cat-gut […] I do my damn duty’. The voice of Alexandra of Denmark is heard asking for ‘two sugars in my tea’. Stacey ends, strongly, with the Queen Mother’s enthusiasm for racing: ‘the curve of a horse’s back in full gallop’. But the Queen at the finishing post, Elizabeth II, is discreetly reined in: ‘my thoughts on Queenship / can only be ascertained by my actions’.
I was left thinking about the restrictions on the activities of recent Queens-in-waiting, Diana and Kate: no paid jobs, no freedom to go out except as an alarmingly thin clothes horse, mobbed by photographers. Would it not be better to be Zara Philips, with no royal title, riding her own horse at full gallop?
The first poem of Queen, Jewel, Mistress ends: ‘hear them echo echo’. I think that Ruth Stacey’s remarkable book will be the beginning of many different echoes in her readers’ (non-royal) minds.