Poem of the week: Cob by Fiona Sampson

These flowing, musical verses evoke both a deep past and a very modern sense of spirituality


The way we used to live
in the old house a house
whose thick walls curved like the living
flanks of beasts

do you remember curving walls
the deep-set windows like
a kind of hope their light
white as the whitewashed walls

that someone made from living
things from straw and hair
and took the teeming mud
salted with living things

in tiny constellations
which hung round us there
baked with the dreaming hair
of horses the corn stalks

that crackled underfoot
and in the hand as they
were cut the mysteries
of domesticity

are also sacrifice
each kitchen knife shining
like joy they took the mud
and baked it as you might

a loaf made from corn
because the crust of things
rises and falls like breath
in the flanks of beasts.

This week we’re revisiting the poetry of Fiona Sampson with Cob, a poem from her most recent collection, The Catch.

The collection’s musical epigraph is by Sir William Cornwallis, the essayist and friend of John Donne, if I’ve located the right man. “Like a singing catch, some are beginning when others are ending,” runs the unsourced quotation. Cornwallis was describing a kind of part-song. The overlapped segments of melody evoked here suggest a liminality of time as well as space. Both dimensions are strongly realised in Cob, a poem that appears in the concluding, 12-poem section of The Catch, A Path Between the Trees.

The noun, “cob”, is wonderfully rich; like the head, the word from which it may originally derive, it’s packed with honey-cells of meaning. The primary meaning for the poem is the house-building material known as cob, an ancient earth-based compound occurring in local variants all over the world, and characteristically a mixture of mud and straw and possibly horsehair. However, two other kinds of “cob” are deeply implicated: the corncob and the horse.

But first, “the old house” is vividly evoked. With its thick, curving walls and “deep-set windows” it registers at once as a living entity. Those walls are “like the living / flanks of beasts”. Repetition of words (“house”, “living”) and sounds (“light”, “white”, “whitewash”) intimates symmetries like those of the body. A lump of earth or clay is itself a house for smaller lives, and the cob was originally “teeming” and “salted with living things / in tiny constellations”. These lines intermesh microbes and stars on a creative continuum that includes, of course, the poem’s speaker and its addressee.

I like the way the poet brings in the animal metaphor early, and maintains it consistently. She resists a big last-stanza epiphany, although its repetition there is reinvigorated by a new sense of “the crust of things” (bread, earth). When the image from the last line of the first stanza recurs (“flanks of beasts”), breath has entered the animal: the flanks are now moving in time with all “crusts”, which marvellously rise and fall.

We know from the pronouns at the beginning that Cob is not a solo performance but an act of memory-nudging communication. “The way we used to live,” as untransformed nostalgic commonplace, would suggest a love poem, a shared, or shareable, looking-back to an earlier phase. But the resonance here is more than personal. There is a stranger society in the poem, a chorus from the past. Like the first voices of “the catch”, they’re nearing their cadence but not yet silenced as the new voices enter.

In the medieval house, there are corn-stalks underfoot and under the knife: like another poem in the collection, The Hunters, but more fleetingly, Cob concedes a place to sacrifice. Assonance becomes harsh here: “crackled”, “cut”, “sacrifice”, contrasting with the warm sounds and dreamy rhyme earlier; “hung round us there / baked with the dreaming hair / of horses”. Despite the allure of the blade, the sheer tactile pleasure of making and baking is primary: there’s no blood when corn becomes loaf. The dense, dark, animal solidities of the poem are carved only by shafts of brightness, the whitewashed walls, the light from the window and, in lovely oxymoron, “the mysteries / of domesticity”, “each kitchen knife / shining / like joy”.

Cob, like the other poems in the collection, uses no punctuation beyond the breathing spaces of grammar and line break. This links it to the polyphonic form of the catch, in which the parts were originally written out as one extended melody. In the poem, some of the clauses, though cohering into logical sentences, have permeable borders. Connective grammar may be evaded altogether, as in the first stanza, allowing full weight to the word as thing, freestanding and self-contained in the stream of time. The metamorphoses of cob to corncob, baked mud to bread, horsehair to horses’ flanks occur seamlessly: they slip past species barriers as past commas and main verbs: they become almost interchangeable. Cob might perhaps be thought of as a three-part catch.

The question begun at the beginning of the second stanza (“do you remember”) has no conclusion, no question mark: it continues in a litany of self-forgetful reminiscence to the end of the poem where there is, after all, a full-stop.

The ancestral presences driving and forming this poem include both English pastoral and Celtic mystical traditions. Thomas Hardy and Ivor Gurney hover in the rich dark shadows: the light, though, seems to be falling from the west. The Catch seems above all to be a narrative of mystical experience; free of God and dogma, but deeply aware of history and ecology, it may be among the pioneers of a newly emergent 21st-century incarnation of sacred poetry.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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