Book Review: Halcyon Ghosts, by Sam Sampson

This book is available from bookstores nationwide. 

When I’m reading a collection of poetry I’m looking for a few different things. I want cv_halcyon_ghostsinteresting language, interesting form, emotional content and connection with the poem itself. I don’t need all of these things to like a poem but in my general experience if it isn’t all four criteria I’m probably not going to love what I’m reading.

For me Sam Sampson’s new collection a bit is hit and miss. The poems that I loved the most were the early ones where the shape of the poems mimicked the shapes of birds in flight. The reader is presented with a photo and then the poem follows in the same shape and it is up to them to figure out how to read it. I admit to being utterly delighted by these poems. Some I read backwards and then read forwards and though I am unsure what the author intended in that regard for me it was an enjoyable experience of disorientation and finding my own way.

‘Broken Architecture’ is a lovely long poem that holds the whole collection together and has some beautiful sections. Throughout the book there is a strong feeling of a concern with our deteriorating environment and I appreciated this each time it appeared. The blurb on the back cover sells this as a book that seems more knowable than it is to me. The predominant feeling I had reading this book was one of constantly being pushed away by the poems. The repeating caesura often alienated me at moments where I was being drawn in. When I was able to connect with the book it was more often about a short phrase, or the shape of a poem or in two instances the sudden clarity of emotional content. ‘She is Sparrow-like and Fierce’ and the final poem ‘the birth, the human, the light’ were the two poems where I felt the emotional content was balanced perfectly against the form and the playful language.

The language often turned to a sort of archaic style that also repelled me and at times seemed really incongruent both with the content and the style. But there were other moments where the sounds and shapes worked together to create something really beautiful. The final stanza of the final poem was such an excellent collection of images and sounds to finish with. The birth of a baby and the end is the beginning.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

Halcyon Ghosts
by Sam Sampson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408169

1 thought on “Book Review: Halcyon Ghosts, by Sam Sampson

  1. interesting quote in The Listener this morning – ‘Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people’ Adrian Mitchell, quoted in The Guardian

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