The Pursuit of What Exists

Zach Savich

Review of Sam Sampson’s Everything Talks, Auckland University Press and Shearsman Books, 2008, 80 pages, $15.00

“And everything that I did
     Did with me talk.”
from “Wonder,” by Thomas Traherne

A reviewer who loves the book under review should listen when it warns “virtually all is lost by explanation.” Luckily, New Zealand poet Sam Sampson’s debut full-length collection, Everything Talks, delights in statements that deepen on examination. Often, this deepening happens when passages that are initially opaque—because of indirection, juxtaposition, abstraction, forcible focus on sound—render startling, precise takes on the sensual world. Once we lose the “virtual all,” Sampson’s poems are rich enough to suggest, we can apprehend the real subject, a remainder similar to Traherne’s wonder.

Although Sampson fluently draws on established experimental poetics, his real subject—the part that isn’t lost by explanation—is not the demonstration of aesthetic theories. Rather, Sampson uses disjunctive strophes and lush, diverse forms (that typically attend to the eye and ear in singular and hospitable ways) to delve into harder clarities. While many poets rely on more discrete lyric approaches—privileging image or argument or emotional reaction, for example, to focus our attention—Sampson’s poems triangulate the world by showing how speech, thought, and a lively sensorium leap, loop, lurch, and blur among one another.

This is the sort of photo-realism that happens when camera technology changes the range visible to the human eye. The result can be like listening to a language you know well enough to respond to—I nod often at these poems—but would be hard pressed to translate.

Often, Sampson conveys his grasping for sufficient expression of hard-to-articulate impressions by shifting from a poem’s established course, underscoring the desire, anxiety, and attention to sincerity in his work. Consider how the poem “Somewhere” grows impatient with the openness of its infinitives and breaks into song:

                    Somewhere (half-decent) there is a place for us

          an open plan, of peace and quiet, and space

                                   for us; an anchorage of blue plague
                                                        realism: to spare, to learn, to care

for us; but what of time
     to spare, time to learn, time to care

          a new way of living?
                                             Oh, cut to the chorus:
                     somehow, someday, somewhere, somewhere . . .

“Oh, cut to the chorus”—what else is poetry but that desire? Here, its expression, trailing off in pure song, is more powerful because it follows such complex grappling. It’s a special kind of fugitive, one who reminds me of Hass’ “everything is easy but wrong,” who longs to escape to “an anchorage of blue plague / realism,” qualifying his hopeful “somewhere,” immediately, with the parenthetical “half-decent.” To me, that qualification feels more precisely hopeful than resigned, especially as the poem goes on to suggest that a wholly decent place might remove us from time, from the ability to take advantage of our “new way of living.”

A poem is not philosophy, but here Sampson uses ideas—driven by echo and the stepping stones of indentation—to reach a moment of song that makes the ideas more complex, comparable to the effect song in Shakespeare has on the drama around it.

Elsewhere, Sampson’s poems do not give variations on a state of mind but on the experience of time to spare, to learn and to care, mingling close attention—present as a microscope’s lens hitting the plate—and memory. Instead of breaking with the present, this retrospection enriches it; memory does not diminish experience but offers an additional empirical layer, doubly embodied by the cadences of its language:

“I can’t preserve this memory, only continue to hang on. As if waving farewell, like a howl this twilight view catches the day’s last light.” (“Soft Focus”)

“vigorous debates of when back then they sang-songs of the collected ocean
(when it was a brilliant place) an arena of reflected caches” (“An Arena of Reflected Caches”)

“Sometimes it blinds the horizon to be looking back.” (Orpheus at Whatipu)

Similar to his use of song, Sampson’s looking
back feels more mythic than sentimental; I think of Dante’s Purgatory, thick with singing and turning. As the liveliness of Sampson’s language latches memory to the present (of the speaker, of the listener), everything talking turns perception into revelation, as in the end of “Gentian Violet:”

flinch at the word:

‘it’s for the best’
then the heave of sob

distanced, up-running
mouthing, that graze of flesh

the first encounter:
mountainous blue : blue mountainous.

Language blossoms, through the wondering ear, from word into world. Sampson’s poems achieve these transformations, variously, through open-field composition, formal constraints, collage, and “listing” that allows us to reach where “likeness swirls.” (How beautiful that likeness, which offers the stability of similarity, is not static!) Especially in poems such as “Sun Star” and “A Fishing Kite,” Sampson’s robust faith in language’s capacity recalls not only Michael Palmer and Rosmarie Waldrop but Gerard Manley Hopkins. As words reveal cosmology, breath becomes transport, acting as a “windmill boat.”

This transport is to a world we are already in, dynamic as the voice that emerges from these at times hurtling, at times clinically iridescent poems. In “Commerce,” Sampson tells us that “a pleasant accident occurs to convince others that it is worthwhile to pursue what currently exists.” Sampson’s poems convincingly show us the pleasures of such a pursuit. They prove that what currently exists is larger than we thought. As in nature, or the clear notes that come from complicated instruments, this book’s range is not random but indicative of honest complexity and of what I want to call—too conservatively, in light of such adventurous poems?—real beauty.

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