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This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

PECULIAR GRACE FIONA SAMPSON, Rough Music (Carcanet) £9.95

Fiona Sampson’s latest collection, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize, is not only her best book to date but places beyond doubt her status as a major poet. Rough Music gathers its power slowly and is visited by peculiar grace; its style breaks into sub-styles which flow away, express themselves, then come back together; it changes register, changes key, but is profoundly unified. The technical sophistication of this mirrors perfectly one of the book’s themes – the nature of change and movement. Sampson has always been master of the exploded lyric, and continues to be: ‘At Käsmu’, ‘The Door’, ‘Schubertiad’ and ‘Rough Music or Songs without Tunes’ are as fully achieved as any as I’ve read. Having been a professional violinist, Sampson has a specialist ear. Her poems remind me how closely the violin resembles the human voice, as capable of shift and acceleration and as wide of range – its very agility and capacity for passion able to deliver complex notes at breathtaking speed. Her poems are full of vibrato used primarily to heighten effect, to embellish and beautify a passage or tone as the finger oscillates on the string. To put it another way, Sampson can play. The opening stanza of the wonderful ‘First Theory of Movement’ is a good example:

I suspect movement mostly
has to do with light.
Flex a bare leg – like this.
Panels of pallor and shadow
rush ...

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