Home......Poetry......Short Stories......Art......Reviews......Articles......Contributors

Catherine Woodward
Fiona Sampson "Common Prayer"
Published by Carcanet Press Ł9.95

In this most recent collection Fiona Sampson reminds us of her superb sensory skill, her ability to plant the reader in an image with subtle draws on the senses. Common Prayer rings with colour and music, using vivid and often bizarre imagery to capture and crystallize moments and musings on the ordinary and the extraordinary. Written with tenderness and a palpable love of language, Sampson explores the facets of the human.
Here we see Sampson move seamlessly from the huge to the infinitesimal and back again, from ‘biting molecules of air’ to ‘an elephant-hide Atlantic and ‘a slur of light on water’. This constant zoom and pan giving a sense that every angle and tone has been scrutinized, bringing the reader to both an odd intimacy and vague distance from the poet’s experience. Sampson performs a similar illusion with her intermingling of the clear and the blurred; the notion of occluded, fading things sits strangely next to her sharp, evocative imagery.
An unusual understanding is felt when reading Common Prayer, not just through the poet’s choice of very human, very empathetic subject matter (sickness, bereavement) but also through her abstract descriptions: ‘the whicker-flight of geese’ ‘the jeep black, business-like’ ‘the fold and collapse of water like a hundred deck chairs’. These comparisons at first seem out of place, but after avoiding the unnecessary and painstaking analysis, we see that Sampson has captured these obscure experiences with perfectly fitting obscurity. These strange instances of insight pepper Common Prayer, bringing the reader ever further into the vein of Sampson’s understanding.
Throughout the book carries the idea that humans are ultimately stitched into nature, as in A Sacrament of Watering where the distinction between human, plant and animal is mystically undefined. Sampson’s frequent references to water suggest that a beauty and power of nature moves in man if nothing else, perhaps in place of God who constantly appears distant and unreachable, particularly in Scenes from the Miracle Cabinet where biblical references are littered as a bitter irony.
In Common prayer Sampson displays some of her most searching writing, digging far into mortality and the spiritual, constantly weaving the interplay of light and dark, life and death. In her poems of hospitals and sickness the two are perfectly married, these emotional binary opposites coincide fluidly throughout, treating heavy, emotional thoughts and experiences with a deep sadness and familiarity. Common prayer questions the less thought of complications of life ‘Are you glass?’ ‘Is this radiance?’, considering less the huge, pressing issues of origin and meaning, and exploring more into what makes something beautiful, beauty being in Sampson’s words simply ‘exceptional’.
Common Prayer holds an extraordinary stilling quality, poems for quiet meditation and escapism, an example of Fiona Sampson’s great talent. Full of superb imagery and with a heart warming humanity, we see the work of a poet who can be both metaphysical and emotionally gripping with her illuminated hold on language.