I can’t now remember why I picked Fiona Sampson‘s Common Prayer. It wasn’t the result of browsing in a bookshop, and I hadn’t heard of her before; I think it was a suggestion thrown up by Amazon that intrigued me, but I’m not really sure. But whatever made Common Prayer land in my hands this week, I’m grateful; it’s up there with John Burnside in how quickly it grabbed me, how dense and lyrical I found it, and how much it moved me.
Common Prayer opens with an immediately compelling piece, ‘Messaien’s Piano’. I’ve just recently discovered Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time, and I can imagine this poem being a response to that. Tough, tender, beautiful – it hooked me in straight away.
I found that this collection echoed what Luci Shaw aims for: minute, precise observation of the everyday epiphanies that we experience, from watering in the garden to looking at your reflection in a darkened window to struggling to pray to driving at night. Sampson’s description in ‘The Looking Glass’ perhaps best describes what I sense in this collection:
And here it is again:
a mute, spatial awareness
of how things are,
before you stepped into the lights
and strange seeping-away clatter
of the Underground.
‘Trumpeldor Beach’ intrigued me, with its engagement with Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and its insistence (I thought) on the physical connectedness of things. ‘The Archive’, a sort of fragmented narrative of a refugee’s journey to Britain, was profoundly moving. I had to work hard, and did a lot of rereading, but found Sampson’s emotional landscapes deeply rewarding, and her elastic, free verse very musical and expansive. She’s written a lot, including a lot of theory, which I’ll definitely be hunting out.
Favourites were ‘A Sacrament of Watering’, ‘Common Prayer’, ‘The Plunge’, ‘Poznań’ from ‘Thresholds’, ‘Attitudes of Prayer’, ‘Night Fugue’, ‘The Dream of the Monstrance’ and especially ‘La Source’, which reminded me of two favourite poems, ‘Dart’ by Alice Oswald and Jean Sprackland’s ‘The Way Down’. Here’s that compelling first piece, ‘Messaien’s Piano’:*
throws notes like handfuls of stones
against a glass-
they’re precipitated into the bluster
and terror of spring.
The beautiful world hardly responds
yet these go on – chorus, soloist. Make a joyful noise
unto the Lord.
Are you glass –
your absence a mirror?
Well, I lob stones.
as from a distant copse,
hear what bodies do:
That long, perfect fall.
*Has she/the editor misspelled ‘Messiaen’, or are there two different ways of spelling it, or is another point being made? My guide to classical music, and the composer’s website, has it ‘Messiaen’…