Review: Tiffany Atkinson & Zoë Skoulding
From the Summer 2014 issue: Sarah Howe reviews Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts (Bloodaxe, 2014) and Zoë Skoulding’s The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2014).
The striking cover image of Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts shows a crouching human body reduced to a metallic armature, its contours porous like a reef or birdcage. Where the head and torso should be, the body’s inner workings burst out in a spray of a thousand pink magnolia flowers, spreading up the gallery wall. Titled ‘Interface’, this installation by American artist Bradley Sabin reflects Atkinson’s own fascination, in her third collection of poems, with the interface between body and consciousness. The opening poem, ‘Nightrunning’, zooms in on the interior of the chest:
It’s all a mistake, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the heart spins hard on its string
is an animal watching. It scratches
at night, perhaps with a beak or a tusk,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.
In this curious melding of anatomy and bestiary (‘where the lungs stretch their intricate wings’) can be glimpsed the book’s coming preoccupation with the ‘strings’ that bind together flesh and selfhood.
That word ‘mistake’ bookends the collection. The final poem, ‘Mantra’, is a litany or list-poem structured around the intriguing refrain, ‘The ego’s a mistake…’, and gives the collection its title:
The ego’s a mistake
sharp with grievance
in four half-fluent languages
not including body: what a scrum –
so many moving parts
It’s not till the book’s last page, then, that we see the title phrase in situ. The twin emphasis here on body and language reminded me of Descartes’ dualist body-as-machine, but also Wallace Stevens’ mot about poems being ‘little machines made out of words’. Atkinson’s book is fascinated by machinery and mechanisms of a more literal sort, from the brokendown tilling machines and ‘oil- / dulled Raeburn’ of ‘Farm Sale, Tregaron’, to the familiar office coffee machine with ‘Something / amiss’ in ‘Hex’, to the ‘yellow huge behaviours / and deep hands’ of the JCBs in ‘Diggers’. Yet the book also keeps in play complex systems of a more metaphysical variety, as when a bird-colonized atoll dissolves into flight: ‘by will the air becomes / gannets, an idea of geometry / pushed through a ravenous body’ (‘A Film of Gannets’). At such moments the title’s latent pun creeps to the surface: ‘moving’ as both ‘in motion’ and ‘emotionally affecting’.
The paradox of a poem like ‘Mantra’ is the feint by which it take the ‘ego’ as its avowed subject, and yet proceeds entirely in an impersonal third-person: the poet shades herself artfully out of frame. The final lines of the poem – and thus of the book – take a risk that’s characteristic of the collection’s wider movement:
The ego’s a mistake
In leaping away from the earlier, concrete comparisons (‘The ego’s a mistake / with a finely tuned appreciation / of nicotine and Sancerre’), Atkinson makes a final bid for significance out of archness that doesn’t wholly succeed in what is overall a fresh, moving and brilliantly inventive book. For similar reasons, the strand of poems haunted by the speaker’s father – whose military career gave rise to her childhood rootlessness – doesn’t sit quite right in its skin. ‘Avdimou’ recounts an anecdote in which the speaker, taken as a child on one of her father’s habitual sailing trips to Greece, drops a favourite toy soldier overboard: ‘I held my favourite thing over the deck / and let him go’. The girl’s unstated motives for this act speak eloquently enough already without the adult’s editorializing final line-and-a-half: ‘I had / forgotten this; am not sure what it means’.
If all this sounds rather sombre, I should add that some of the most striking, and touching, moments in the book come from its dry sense of humour. Sometimes this emerges in oddball descriptions with a chuckle-inducing rightness, as when ‘The hands of flight attendants’ (in the poem of that title) ‘shake us like napkins / from thin air / and place us helpless in our own laps’. It seems no coincidence that the pair of poems featuring Ira the ‘philosopher’ relates the knotted bonds of human society to the coils of the digestive system. Both ‘Guts’ and ‘Crystal’ dwell on the ‘purgatory’ and/or pleasure involved in taking a shit. The poems’ philosophical speculations are delightfully ‘earthed’: the pensive crescendo of ‘Oh, Ira, what does the world want?’ follows on from a ‘sticky thorn / of crap’ dropped by a black Labrador named, amusingly, ‘Crystal’. Atkinson sees the absurdity in everyday scenarios, but also their poetic potential.
Zoë Skoulding’s The Museum of Disappearing Sounds – recently shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award – is her third collection from Seren. An important reminder of how easy it is for writers to privilege the visual end of the sensorium, Skoulding’s poems revel in their effort to unlock noise and breath from the silent inscription of writing. Before the era of sound artists, museums were exclusively a repository for things to be seen . (When you think about it, compared with the early graphic technologies of drawing or writing, live sound recording is a remarkably recent innovation.)
The ‘Museum’ of the title poem features a series of exhibits that are, on the one hand, elegies to the transitory nature of sound as an event. But, on the other, their voice is remade – as all poems surely are – in the mind’s ear of each new reader:
in a breath a crackle of static
xxxxxxx a detuned radio in one lung
drones erase one other
xxxxxxx electricity sings in D
tyres slur across the street
The slant rhyme of ‘tyres’ and ‘slur’ suggests how far the poet’s traditional resources inform these poems’ more experimental textures. The book encompasses Skoulding’s interest, as a performer and researcher, in the acoustic possibilities of field recordings and electronic music. Its title (but for a slightly modified preposition) comes from an essay by R. Murray Schafer called ‘I Have Never Seen a Sound’, which asks provocatively, ‘Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?’ Schafer sent out his students into Vancouver to record the ambient noises of their city, jotting a card to note the time and place at which each ‘sound object’ was captured.
Skoulding’s poems similarly explore the interactions between sound and physical location. The overlaying of soundscape and cityscape is at its clearest in a peripatetic sequence called ‘From Here’. In ‘The Rooms’, the book’s long culminating series, the poems’ sound world becomes more interior, taking on an architecture part-material, part-mental. (‘Stanza ’ is of course the Italian word for ‘room’.) The titular room numbers and their unknown significance – we jump from ‘Room 321’ to ‘Room 201’ to ‘Room 117’ and so on – multiply the sense of the uncanny: we lack the glossy plan for this museum, which might also be a hotel, or another kind of building entirely. Sounds bounce off walls like surfacing memories:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx repeating the distance from
xxxxxxxxxx chair to window
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx window to floor
This sequence’s ping-ponging about the page demonstrates Skoulding making strenuous and convincing use of such layouts, in which white space measures out the duration of a silence, or breath.
‘The Man in the Moone’ is a three-part poem that borrows its title from a seventeenth-century work of science fiction by Francis Godwin. In the following section, the last two lines come from Godwin’s description of the Moon-based utopian civilization of the ‘Lunars’, who communicate in a language of wordless music (a bit like Renaissance Clangers):
distributed in music the tension of a
single note everywhere between breaths
holding inside it weight and distance in
gravity as tightrope stutter they row
themselves through air with giant fans and
utter their minds by tunes without words.
Skoulding’s breathless syntax runs up against the measuring line breaks, enacting the musical ‘tension’ – held ‘between breaths’ – these finely-gauged stanzas describe. For Godwin, the Lunars’ tuneful tongue was a version of the ‘perfect language’ spoken before Babel, which was the questing beast of seventeenth-century philologists. Skoulding’s poems glance at this dream of language as sound perfectly aligned with thought, but at the same time refuse to give up on the crackle and hiss of a more mundane music. The ‘giant fans’ the Lunars use to propel themselves around the Moon’s low gravity nod wryly at the collection’s cover, which shows a tiled collage of extractor fan vents. The Lunars’ celestial music meets the industrial city’s white noise.
The afterlife of Babel comes through in the book’s interest in translation, as in ‘Variants on a Polish Fragment’:
this is glass this is szk?a or szk?o depending on where
it catches the light and I can’t see anything through it
only hear the rasp of broken bottles
The opacity of the glass – and by extension of the foreign word – suggests Skoulding’s sophisticatedly synesthetic play in these poems, which frequently invoke sight and touch en route to sound. The wonderfully titled ‘Ô’, on the facing page, wears its foreignness on its sleeve, the circumflex diacritic being of course alien to English, except in loan words like rôle . That Skoulding writes from the multilingual environment of Wales becomes important here, since the circumflex (which Wikipedia tells me is known colloquially as bach , or ‘little roof ’) will sometimes be used to disambiguate a long ‘o’ in Welsh. The poem’s opening lines recall the musical language of Godwin’s Lunars: ‘while tones of planets descend / in scales as if thought were pitch / not picture but single note’. ‘Pitch’ is perfectly chosen here, poised as it is between the auditory and visual, suggesting at once the music of thought and a visible angle of declination – like a plane’s pitched nose, or the pitched roof of a circumflex accent. Yet, in the opposite direction, the poem implies there is something universal about the long ‘Ô’ – that producing this sound in the body, with a ‘tightening of the throat’ and the mouth rounded to an O, is a physical constant that might transcend cultures, and the need for translation. These are poems as nourishing in their intelligence as they are satisfying to sound on the lips.
Sarah Howe was born in Hong Kong in 1983. Her first collection is due from Chatto in 2015.
This review is from the Summer 2014 Issue. Find out more about what’s inside this issue here.