Avoiding the plain language loop

by David Eggleton / 25 July, 2009
Sam Sampson's words engage in an acrobatic tumbling across the page.

Around Auckland, the swallow, swooping low over the water, is a speedy flier in pursuit of small insects on the wing. It's a bird that makes a frequent appearance in Sam Sampson's Everything Talks, a finalist for best first book of poetry at the 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and its flight path is a fitting image for the delicate dance of syllables in which Sampson's poems specialise.

His words and phrases gather themselves, take wing and then engage in a kind of acrobatic tumbling across the page. His is a poetry of pauses, turns, leaps and dives. It's all about where the stress falls, the music of verbal cadences, the weave of sonic counterpoint. He returns poetry to its primal function as ecstatic utterance: words are miraculous things, rich in resonances and echoes.

Style-wise, this poet's influences stem from the American "Language" school of poetry, whose exemplars include Louis Zukofsky and Charles Bernstein. Unrepentant experimentalists given to pushing the envelope of form, they create poetry that's hyper-aware of its constituent parts, its building blocks of sounds and images and patterns. As Sampson tells us in Geographic Tongue, he seeks to "avoid the plain language loop".

Sampson's favourite habitat is the Waitakere Ranges, the outer reaches of the Manukau Harbour and the beaches of Auckland's wild west coast: indeed, if everything is talking, it's talking along the coastline. Gazing westward, ear cocked, offers this poet opportunities for meditation, for contemplation, for rapture. But if he's tuned into voices on the ether, he's tuned into a signal that keeps cutting out, leaving snippets, hip-hop sound collages that can read like out-takes from the writing of William S Burroughs - the cut-up sentences of Nova Express or The Ticket That Exploded, devoted to a fragmentary stream of consciousness.

Yet at the same time there's something mesmerising, even dazzling, about Sampson's artful open-endedness, with its encouragement of a kind of endless circuit of re-reading or re-hearing - "the sun detonated; constellations torching the surface wake ..." The book is a thing of acoustics and harmonics, and its song lines are tracing a personal history and testament, even if a delight in verbal music sometimes becomes a polysyllabic garble that resembles the bubbling of surf, or bird squawk snatched by the wind.

But though you may need to keep a dictionary handy, it's not a prerequisite to understand all the references to get the poem. The mellifluous lyricism of his fragments encourages you to relax into them like a network of perceptions, a hammock of language swaying gently in a summer sea breeze.

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