What appears to be a rural idyll quickly becomes a poetic landscape shot through with a sense of menace
Coleshill is an ancient settlement on the Wiltshire-Oxfordshire border, of which William Cobbett wrote in his Rural Rides: "I saw … at Coleshill the most complete farm-yard that I ever saw, and that I believe there is in all England, many and complete as English farm-yards are." Yet if Coleshill might seem to wear the aspect of a Platonic England, it's not exclusively idyllic: farmyards, after all, are home to animals and bladed tools, and even remote places are nowadays easily accessible to someone wishing to deliver the (all too real) death threat received by Fiona Sampson, which the police investigated. Coleshill, then, offers a fairly complete rural English package. "Jerusalem", meanwhile, is a dream experienced by the dead "in their stone beds".
Sampson's fourth collection reads the place not only for the welcome seclusion of its fields and hedgerows but for its menace, and for a larger environmental unravelling signalled by the dying-off of the bee population ("yes, all of them, / Small scabs of air.") This might suggest a book whose emphases are discursive and journalistic, but the central mode of Coleshill is lyric. The book is closely braided with sequences, a corona of sonnets studded with "Little Songs of Malediction", landscape pieces interlocked with madrigal, fugue and night music. Coleshill is a genuinely through-composed work, one poem opening secretly into another as the imagination endures a period of threat, when the reasonable assurances of ordinary civil life are removed by a sense that anything might happen, or that it already is happening. Given the material, the poet's touch is miraculously light.
Poetry is perhaps the paranoid art par excellence: it depends on sidelong links and slippages and echoes in its pursuit of order and sense, and Sampson shows what happens when this artistic process runs up against insistently real experience. "A Charm Against Knives" quotes a press report of the disappearance of a young woman from a Swindon nightclub followed by the discovery of her body near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. A bruise noticed by a friend recalls "the whisper of steel on skin", after which "How urgent it is, / this never being free / of soil beneath your skin, / of dirt on your skin." In order for such poems to work, the combination of openness and watchfulness on which poetry depends has to be maintained as at crisis level, but without loss of control: to relax into lamentation and complaint would be to give in.
The poems, which reveal but do not announce or labour the pervasive solitude of the ordeal, are at times dreamlike, yet meticulously exact, as the world of sensory experience undergoes a kind of half-transformation – "this occlusion, / this instability / of light. / Again the unseen thumb // printing the lens / as I lift it shining / to my eye." Creatureliness is to the fore: "All of us, floating and stalking, / are flat-footed insects, water-boatmen / dimpling the dark." A dead vixen at the roadside, "her head thrown back all jaw", a magpie whose "eye could turn you to stone / if it ever opened", bespeak the rapid collapse of the everyday categories that privilege an illusory normality, to be replaced by an unaccommodated view of human affairs. Crime novels and thrillers indulge such possibilities for want of serious purchase on the world, but these poems live through them and – the only thing that counts, poetically – make art of them.
Along with lyric goes intimacy, a solitary intimacy with the self, in the body and in the dreamscapes between sleep and waking: "Some nights, my body wakes / to itself: // a forest of cries and small deaths / as bruised tissues // punish each other / in the intimate dark." The experience seems like being reintroduced to an aspect of the self that the daily passage of normality has understandably allowed to become almost a stranger. What the anonymous coward who made the threat may not know is that his message has a precedent from long before, one involving a direct physical attack, whose malign imaginative standing is renewed by current malice: "sometimes he's an owl. Or he's a swan, / or Caucasian male, clean-shaven, age unknown – // or this plumed and gleaming angel / at the door, with a knife."
Even the flintiest pessimist is likely to wish that Coleshill will conclude, if not in complete emergence from the realm of threat and whisper, then in hope. "If you're not dead you're doing all right" is the closing line of the last of the sonnets, but there is more than bare existence on offer here. The self has greater resources at its disposal, suggested in "The Soloist", a poem looking back at Sampson's earlier life as a violinist: "Every day comes the desire / to elbow through to some bright place / louder than a concert hall, / where the self echoes entire – / the outer to the inner call." By this reading, art is not consolation for evil endured, but an entrance to a larger dispensation. It is bracing, at a time when sentimentality is often allowed to infect serious matters, to read such a determined affirmation of possibility, and such a refusal to shrivel under the weight of malevolence and spite, or to be confined by them.
• Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems is published by Picador.