Sunday Poem – Fiona Sampson

This week has been taken over by finishing off my tax return.  I finally got it done on Thursday night and it felt like a huge weight had lifted from me once I pressed submit, even though this meant I also had to pay a rather large tax bill.  I’m trying to look on the positive side with this.  It means I’ve made my living as a writer this year for the first time ever, which is something to be happy about.

I have been slightly freaked out by the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety I’ve had this week.  I’ve not experienced anything like it before.  I’ve had sleepless nights, nausea, headaches and the worst (although it doesn’t sound very bad) was the whole of my face tingling and burning, which I mistakenly thought was a tooth infection or something.  It wasn’t – it was a symptom of stress, but when I went to the dentist, she said I’d actually damaged my jaw from clenching and grinding my teeth while I was asleep.

I’ve paid my tax now, with some juggling of overdrafts but it has really been a wake up call to get myself sorted out and organised for next year.

Apart from tax adventures, I’ve taken on some tutoring work with The Poetry School and I did the first of three tutorials with my mentee on Monday.  I was wondering how easy it would be to talk for an hour about someone’s poetry, but of course it was incredibly easy – in fact we ended up going over the hour without noticing.  I feel really lucky to be doing this work – it is very satisfying to work with someone who is talented and motivated to improve.  I’m looking forward to the next batch of poems which should be arriving some time today.

I went with the Dove Cottage Young Poets to see the Picture the Poet exhibition this week which is at Tullie House in Carlisle.  I’m working with the young poets for six weeks in collaboration with Apples and Snakes to produce work around the theme of identity.  The young poets wrote some amazing poems in response to the exhibition.  We’ve got two more sessions before they perform the work they’ve produced on the 4th March alongside the wonderful Ian McMillan at Tullie House.

I’ve also been working this week on a review I’m writing for Poem magazine which leads me nicely to this week’s Sunday Poem by Fiona Sampson, who is the editor of Poem.  I’m really excited about this week’s poem because it is from Fiona’s as yet unpublished collection The Catch.  The collection is officially published on the 4th February so I am feeling very pleased with myself that I managed to get an early copy and a poem for the blog!

I knew I was going to like this collection right from the first peom ‘Wake’ which starts

‘Wake again to first light
it’s like a slim cat
coming home through Top Field’

These lines reminded me of the William Carlos Williams poem Poem (As the Cat), more because of the way both poems echo the delicate movement of a cat through their line breaks than the obvious similarity of them both containing the word ‘cat’.

Here is the Sunday Poem ‘At Bleddfa’.


At Bleddfa – Fiona Sampson 

Back and forth
all morning
through the door the dogs
wander like clouds

nudging each other
a long dream

of the kitchen
as of the wet and sunny grass
they settle things
into place

chairs in order
boots by the door
all sachlichkeit
and they remind me

how when I was
still a child
my father took me
to a friend’s house

empty attics
wooden stairs
and a garden slung
between elms

where rooks called
I was afraid
and not afraid
of how the day hung

above the still house
how in my mind
there was nothing
but a stilled sky.

I chose ‘At Bleddfa’ for the Sunday Poem with great difficulty because there were so many lovely poems in the book to choose from.  However, this one won the day because it has dogs in, and more importantly, they ‘wander like clouds’.  I know well that restlessness that dogs sometimes exhibit – although mine usually just sleep all day, sometimes they get into a strange mood and just drift about.

The poem is also a good example of the formal concerns that Fiona is exploring in the collection.  There is hardly any punctuation throughout the whole book.  There are usually full stops, but only at the end of a poem, apart from one exception (the poem ‘Field’ which has a full stop right in the middle.  I also found a couple of commas and a question mark or two, but on the whole, the breathing and pacing of the poems are given by the line breaks.  The lines are often fairly short ones as well, as in ‘At Bleddfa’ which slows the reader down.  The lack of punctuation also serves to stretch the syntax and the sentence to its limit, sometimes meaning that certain lines become pivots with double meanings.

I did have to look up sachlichkeit and Wikipedia tells me that it is ‘a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it.  Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world’.  Later on in the Wikipedia article there is another quote which I thought was a bit easier to understand and get my head around, particularly in the context of this poem which was by Dennis Crockett from a book called ‘German post-expressionism’.  Crockett writes

Sachlichkeit should be understood by its root, Sach, meaning “thing”, “fact”, “subject”, or “object.” Sachlich could be best understood as “factual”, “matter-of-fact”, “impartial”, “practical”, or “precise”; Sachlichkeit is the noun form of the adjective/adverb and usually implies “matter-of-factness”

This seems to fit with the meaning of the rest of the poem – the dogs drifting about and how they ‘settle things into place.’

The poem is a beautiful, almost peaceful description of a morning and a place and a home, but to me it felt that there is something darker moving underneath the surface as well.  One of my favourite lines, the ‘garden slung/between elms’ is both a wonderful image but also a slightly uncomfortable one as well but I can’t exactly put my finger on why.  Maybe it is because it is followed by the sound of the rooks calling, which sounds ominous, or lonely.

The word ‘still’ is used twice in the last four lines and reinforces that idea of the calm before a storm, but the storm is never mentioned.  It is present only by its absence.  Those lines ‘I was afraid/and not afraid’ are also interesting.  How is it possible to be both?  How can you be afraid and not afraid of ‘how the day hung/above the still house’?  How can you be afraid and not afraid of ‘how in my mind/there was nothing/but a stilled sky.’  It gives the impression of time, of that moment at the father’s ‘friend’s house’ being frozen but we are never told why it is frozen.  This fits back with the word ‘Sachlichkeit’ though.  If something awful did happen, it is being dealt with by carrying on, by turning to practicalities, by getting on with life.



This does feel like it could have multiple meanings though, and maybe I’ve taken it in one direction and ran with it and I’m completely wrong – who knows? Please feel free to comment and tell me what you think about the poem.

Thanks to Fiona for letting me use this poem for the blog this week.  You can find out more about Fiona at her new website but I would like to tell you a bit more about her before I finish. Fiona has been shortlisted twice for the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes.  Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages, and awarded a Cholmondeley Award, the Newdigate Prize and the Ziaten Prsten (Macedonia) among others.  A Fellow and Council Member of the Royal Society of Literature, she is Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton and is the Editor of Poem magazine.  If you would like to buy ‘The Catch’ you can do so here or here

8 comments on “Sunday Poem – Fiona Sampson

  1. Thanks for this lovely poem. The book is going on my shopping list.
    The tax-return does that to me, too, Every year I resolve not to leave it until the last moment, and every year I do, and suffer for it.

  2. Ah…you really caught me out, Kim. Cmae back from a cold mizzling game at Mount Pleasant (the most ironically-named foofball ground in Britain), got changed, dried out, and settled down to write the blog post. And your’s is done. (As is your tax return). And I’ve not made a start. That’ll teach me. Fiona Sampson’s poem has already taught me about line breaks and short lines, the punctuation of white space. I’m much taken by the anaolog og dogs/clouds, the way she nails the comfortable familiarity of a dog with its own space. And how clouds know precisely and effortlessly where to be in the sky. I like that clever switch or pivot in mid-poem, the way it turns on the surprising fulcrum of the unfamiliar word into the the uneasy unreadabilty of a strange house and it’s uneasy garden. Lovely. Thank you. Time I wrote my post. Grinds teeth.

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