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Towards a Relational Poetics

Conceptual writing and alt lit


By Steven Hitchins


An exclusive essay from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014 issue

In Uncreative Writing Kenneth Goldsmith considers the impact of the internet on writing, suggesting that writing in the twenty-first century will be about managing the vast amount of text online, simply cutting and pasting text from one source to another, curating links – a conceptual writing where the idea is more important than the actual text.

Conceptual writing is characterised, in the work of Goldsmith, Simon Morris, Vanessa Place and Tan Lin, amongst others, by the techniques of copying, transcription and cataloguing.

Another literary movement that has emerged in the first decades of the twenty-first century might offer an alternative to conceptual writing in considering how the internet affects writing: the writers grouped under the term ‘alt lit’ show how a social grassroots beat- or punk-esque movement can take shape through social media. Some writers often described as alt lit include Noah Cicero, Tao Lin (not to be confused with Tan Lin), Megan Boyle, Brandon Scott Gorrell and Steve Roggenbuck. Alt lit has a less academic feel to conceptual writing, emerging through communities of writers promoting and publishing their work on social media networks. In its obsessive documenting of online life, alt lit is similar to conceptual writing, but while conceptual writing favours appropriation of found texts, alt lit is mostly devoted to autobiographical narratives.

Goldsmith’s proposal of conceptual writing seems to go along with what Brion Gysin once said about writing being fifty years behind art: ‘In 1959, Brion Gysin said that writing was 50 years behind painting. And it still is. So if conceptual art happened 50 years ago, we’re just beginning to get around to it now. These are ideas that have never been explored in poetry.’

I would disagree with this, however, because poetry was engaging with and questioning conceptual art in the 1970s, as can be seen in the work of poets like Allen Fisher, Bernadette Mayer and David Antin to mention just a few. Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing opens up interesting links between poetry and conceptual art, but I feel they can be developed further by looking at what has been going on in the world of art more recently.

In the late-nineties, Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’ to describe the ways in which he felt artists were reacting to the internet’s commodification of social and relational channels with works that were interactive and participatory.

Interactivity might entail actual activity on the part of the audience, such as in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free) where the artist cooked curry and rice in the exhibition space and served it to visitors free of charge; or the activity may be more ambiguous, inviting thought from the audience, as in the corporate stage-sets that suggest platforms for discussion in Liam Gillick’s Discussion Island/Big Conference Center.

While Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is flawed, such as in the way it lumped together artists with very different concerns, it is an attempt to understand the contemporary situation while ‘ceasing to take shelter behind sixties art theory’ (Bourriaud, p. 7). I find it useful as a model with which to consider conceptual writing because Bourriaud identified differences between the relational art of the 1990s and the conceptual art of the 1960s: how relational art took up many of the issues of conceptual art but ‘relieved of the matter of the definition of art, so pivotal in the 1960s and 1970s’ (Bourriaud, p. 30). Rather than critiquing relations inside the art world (the question of what is art and what is not art), relational art drew attention to external relations, relationships between people and the world.

Bourriaud saw this relational aesthetic as continuing the utopian aims of modernity to ‘emancipate individuals and people’ (Bourriaud, p. 11), ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (p. 12), but without the aim for totality: ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’(p. 31). The micro-utopias of relational art were utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work was ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’ (p. 13). Whereas postmodern art had become disillusioned with modernist utopias, Bourriaud saw in relational art a return to ethical social aims but without the belief in totalising change.

I want to suggest that relational aesthetics could be used to consider how conceptual writing and alt lit, two web-derived genres at the start of the twenty-first century, are trying to find ways to move beyond the irony and relativism of the postmodernist endgame. It could offer ideas for how conceptual writing and alt lit might meet in a kind of social conceptual writing.

 

Copying

In Getting Inside Kerouac’s Head, Simon Morris retypes Kerouac’s On The Road, one page a day. In Day, Kenneth Goldsmith copies out the entire New York Times for a single day. In Statement of Facts, Vanessa Place lifts court transcripts from child abuse cases.

Appropriation has been a common device throughout twentieth-century poetry – from cubism to language poetry, writers have been stealing from other texts – but the dominant tendency has been for transformation of the appropriated text through fragmentation and collage.

In conceptual writing there is not so much transformation, or if there is, it is usually just one layer of transformation, often a simple act of lifting something out of context, keeping it otherwise intact. For conceptual writers ‘the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 3). It involves lightness of touch from the writer.

For readers of twentieth-century avant-garde poetry this lack of fragmentation might make the texts seem boring, but for conceptual writing that is part of the point. Conceptual writing steals boring texts. It favours the neutral tone of news reports, legal documents, bibliographical entries. Copying something that’s exciting might not work because we would end up reading the text for its content. The content is meant to repell the reader, to make us think about the concept.

In contrast to alt lit’s predominantly autobiographical, confessional mode, Goldsmith suggests that in foregoing a personal narrative and simply transposing a found text conceptual writers let the words speak for themselves.

Like conceptual writing, alt lit is characterised by a neutral tone, perhaps derived from the flattened affect experienced when communicating through instant messenger services like Gmail chat. Noah Cicero uses short single-sentence paragraphs to make it easier to read on screen, aspiring to the clarity of instruction manuals.

This is similar to the coherence in conceptual writing: ‘Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building.’

For conceptual writing, wholeness is to make the content uninteresting; for alt lit writers like Cicero and Tao Lin, it’s to make it readable. Both are shocking due to the lack of that fragmentation that has become so dominant in avant-garde poetry over the course of the twentieth-century.

For Tao Lin, this involves meticulously detailed accounts of his experiences that try to avoid generalisations, assumptions and clichés. He writes ‘from an existential point of view, meaning it tries not to block out any information… In order to have morals one must block out information and make assumptions…’

He says he views everyone’s experience as unique, so tries not to simplify the complexity of experience: ‘I try not to think of anyone (in books, or in concrete reality) in terms of single words or terms. If I do use language that categorizes and simplifies I try to use it in a way that shows I’m aware – and I’d like the reader or listener to be aware – that, for whatever reason, I’m compromising the complexity and actualness of a thing.’

While conceptual writing seems to remain within the cool, ironic stance of postmodernism, alt lit seems to signal a move towards the micro-utopian positions of relational aesthetics. Whereas Goldsmith advocates unoriginality, falseness, inauthenticity, alt lit puts emphasis on sincerity, though not without some sense of irony. Alt lit poet Steve Roggenbuck says, ‘I use the outward trappings of irony … and try to express something sincere through it.’

 

Like relational art, alt lit does not propose to return to any totalising utopian project, but to develop out of postmodernism’s critique of the possibility of any singular, generalised universal truth towards a way of being truthful.

For Tao Lin this involves constant vigilance, as he strives to avoid generalisations while documenting his every thought and action in the hope of perhaps learning about himself and changing his behaviour. For Steve Roggenbuck, it’s a matter of donning an ironic cloak of mock-naivety in order to make startlingly direct statements with the aim of promoting more consciously aware ways of living.

Such moment-to-moment models for living are reminiscent of the micro-utopian approach in relational art; for example, when Rirkrit Tiravanija, in Untitled 1999 (Tomorrow Can Shut Up and Go Away), turns the gallery exhibition space into a replica of his apartment, which visitors are allowed to use. In doing so, he is not necessarily simply bringing non-art elements into the art space to make a Duchampian comment on art. He is asking how we can use the expanded art space opened up by conceptual art. Alt lit might be in a position to do something similar with the space opened up by conceptual writing, to turn it into a social space that can be used.

 

Transcribing

In Fidget, Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes self-made audio recordings detailing his every movement over the course of a day. In Soliloquy, he transcribes self-made audio recordings of everything he says over the course of a week. In the ‘American Trilogy’ of Weather, Traffic and Sports, he turns from self-made recordings to transcribing found recordings of weather reports over the course of a year, traffic reports over twenty-four hours and the commentary of an entire baseball game.

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith describes how his transcriptions draw on the methods of Andy Warhol, who used a tape-recorder to record friends talking, then got someone else to type it up for his novel a, and made films such as Sleep, a five-hour film of a man sleeping, and Empire, an eight-hour static shot of Empire State Building. ‘The prevalent trend was the quick edit and jump cut,’ he says, ‘but Warhol did the opposite: he plunked the camera on a tripod and let it run… and run… and run…’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 145). Goldsmith’s transcriptions of audio recordings are like long static camera shots: though repetitive, static, going nowhere, they emphasise the passage of time. In contrast to the paratactic collage prevalent in twentieth-century avant-garde, Goldsmith just sets up the recorder and lets it run.

Like Goldsmith, Tao Lin uses a period of time as a narrative structure. His novels too are about the passage of time: ‘with all the focus on surface details, with no sentences devoted to thoughts or feelings, and I think that results in a kind of themelessness, that, in its lack of focus on anything else, the theme becomes, to me, the passage of time’.

Alt lit shows how social media impacts on our experience of time: mundane activities become more intensely experienced due to the hyperreal memory of archiving your life online as tweets and posts. In alt lit, this close attention to living in the present is accompanied by a melancholic sense that the present will soon become nostalgically poignant as it recedes into the past.

Social media also provides alt lit with a sense of detachment from experience – like a running commentary on your own thoughts and actions (similar to watching the world through a laptop camera as Tao Lin and Megan Boyle do in their MDMA films). As in Goldsmith’s transcriptions, we experience things at a remove. We read Traffic not as traffic reports but a transcription of traffic reports. This doubling is even more apparent when listening to the recording of Goldsmith reading the text, as he performs the reporter’s hesitations.

If conceptual writing says, ‘The world is full of texts; I do not wish to add any more’, then alt lit says, ‘The world is full of texts; I want to add more’. While conceptual writers tend to work with found texts, modelling themselves on readers negotiating the vast amount of text online, alt lit writers emulate the bloggers, tweeters, facebookers relentlessly adding to the online fabric by documenting their own every thought and action. Goldsmith: ‘social networking updates… fast and ephemeral… their value is in rapid succession… like so many shards they accumulate into a grand narrative of life’ (Uncreative Writing, p. 176). Alt lit is literature of accumulation. Text is churned out at speed.

Recording people speaking, whether on tape recorder or on internet chat, highlights the performativity of everyday conversation. Poetry is all around and as we move through a space we activate it, or catch its imprints, like Robert Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print captures the paint-smeared tyre-print of John Cage’s car as it’s driven over twenty sheets of paper.

One of the main characteristics of relational art is that the art moment is difficult to locate. Liam Gillick says it is about ‘trying to find those aspects in a culture that are hard to grasp … the feeling you get of the light in a nightclub the morning after [or] standing outside a bar’.

The objects, texts, installations feel strangely incomplete, requiring the audience to activate them – perhaps simply by moving through the space. Gillick describes his work as ‘like the light in the fridge … it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room.’

 

 

Cataloguing

In Via, Caroline Bergvall catalogues all the English translations of the first stanza of Dante. In Bibliographic Sound Track and The PhD Sound, Tan Lin compiles bibliographic lists of his reading materials.

Conceptual artists love things in series, alphabetical or chronological orders. John Baldessari photographed the backs of all the trucks he passed while driving. Ed Ruscha photographed many examples of the same thing: twenty-six gasoline stations, nine swimming pools. This archiving of the same plays on the variation found in repetition. Serial cataloguing shows a concern with time perhaps derived from the increased ability brought about by advances in photography and film to quickly document passing activity. It could also be seen to have developed from the geometric permutations of minimal art, such as the early modular structures of Sol Lewitt.

Tan Lin’s ambient bibliographies are plain and cold like some conceptual art. They are meant to be used like wallpaper, he says: a poetry of boredom; slow-motion PowerPoint poems that play in the background. They play on how we read and manage information; we don’t read bibliographic matter closely – just skim it. It could also give the reader something to do as you might decide to go off and read the works cited in his bibliographies.

Alt lit has a similarly obsessive, processual and repetitive character to conceptual writing, though with a focus on autobiographical material. Megan Boyle’s ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’ and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s ‘All The Drugs I’ve Taken’ each describe lots of examples of the same theme catalogued in chronological order. The repeated phrases and patterns throughout the texts are reminiscent of the recurring forms in Ruscha’s photographs (‘we didn’t use a condom’, ‘I first took [drug] around the age of [age] or [age]’). This is akin to the archiving of the same in Tan Lin and Caroline Bergvall, but while conceptual writing generally draws on found text, alt lit uses personal online diary material (email, chat, posts). Tan Lin says his bibliographies are autobiographical but he records his life through his reading material rather than by writing about it. His alt lit almost-namesake, Tao Lin, isn’t as selective, stating that he doesn’t want to leave anything out, so records everything.

The cataloguing methods of conceptual writing and alt lit show that a book can be documentation of an event. In conceptual writing, the event documented is a writing event and the books are products or traces of those events. The event for alt lit writers is living their lives and this can be documented in tweets or posts. Tao Lin and Megan Boyle’s Muumuu House website publishes transcripts of Gmail chats and selections of Twitter feeds; Steve Roggenbuck publishes poems via Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter then collates them in his books.

Relational artists have also used cataloguing techniques; for example,  the texts, photographs and videos that Rirkrit Tiravanija uses to document a shared car journey to the exhibition in On the road with Jiew, Jeaw, Jieb, Sri and Moo. Like relational art, alt lit is not just about the art object (e.g. the book), but everything that goes on around it. The catalogued documention is part of wider social and community events.

Conceptual artists come up with recipes/scores/machines for someone else to carry out (e.g. someone draws Sol Lewitt’s lines on wall), but relational art shows that designing and carrying out instructions can be a social act. For example, in Streamside Day, Pierre Huyghe provided instructions and all materials needed for a festival to celebrate the opening of a new suburban town, which the community could then carry out each year.


Huyghe3 by Video_Blog_REWF

Like relational art, alt lit is about friendship and ethics . Like relational artists, Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck are ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’ (Bourriaud, p. 13). For example, Tao Lin says, ‘Art is like friendship. If you like someone you want to be their friend, and you want to introduce them to your other friends… If I like someone’s art I want to show it to people and I want to be their friend.’

While Steve Roggenbuck adds, ‘“success” to me is making people’s lives better.’

Conceptual writing’s obsessive cataloguing shows that the book can be a space to curate, while alt lit shows how that can be a social space. Relational art might suggest ways in which these can be brought together to provide a participatory, interactive poetry that explores and critiques the social spaces of the twenty-first century.

 

Review: Carolyn Jess-Cooke & Kathryn Simmonds

Emily Hasler reviews Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Boom! (Seren, 2014) and Kathryn Simmonds’ The Visitations (Seren, 2013).

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Boom!, as the cover states, is a book ‘on motherhood’, recording the intimacies, joys and apprehensions of parenting from a personal perspective. Carolyn Jess-Cooke warns us what to expect from her second collection in the opening poem:

There was this baby who thought she was a hand grenade.
[…]
As you might expect, she blew us to smithereens
We survived, but in a different state […]
(‘Boom’)

Boom! CoverLife-changing is too coy, this is a continually transformative process whereby the atoms of identity are violently rearranged. The experience is recreated in poems that are fresh with ideas and imagery:

to rut the fattened mole of myself
[…]
to burrow through the month’s clotted walls —
as though I had to sow and aerate the day
of her birth in time’s soil
like something that had never before existed.
(‘The Days of the Ninth Month’)

The book follows a roughly narrative course, from courtship to labour, from first baby to fourth. The children are only referred to as ‘my first-born child’, ‘my baby girl’, ‘my two-year old’ and so on, so that nameless and numberless they inhabit developing identities as they, and the family, grow. Later in the collection, anxieties of motherhood give way to memories of the poet’s own childhood; dark remembrances of domestic violence and suicide which nonetheless are explored openly and with a remarkable kindness. This is a generous and open book, a record of personal experience that offers comfort rather than judgment to anyone in similar situations.

These poems are often moving and powerful, being both tender and visceral, but the sentiment is sometimes overindulged. In places the imagery is weak or repetitive. A classic extract is ‘[I] kiss where the gosling floss / flicks from the velvet arc of her nape’ (‘To a Zoopraxiscope’). Jess-Cooke is too clever to fall into cliché, but the layering on of such blond, downy phrasing gives this book a consistency that will not appeal to all. Sometimes the vignettes, although emotionally powerful, are confused or unclear. However, if the style is not always winning and the subject matter rather linear, our trust in the poet’s sincerity never falters.

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Kathryn Simmonds’ second collection also tackles motherhood, but it does so as part of a broader range of negotiations with modern life. Simmonds is a poet who revels in the quotidian, brilliantly evoking the aromas and textures of her domestic settings: ‘Sit up and see the sheets fine-wired with pubic hair and eyelashes,/ skin cells scattered like flakes of prehistory’ (‘Oversleeping’). From these cosy (or stifling) interiors the poet addresses universal questions. The opening poem begins ‘Since I’ve stopped praying/ I’ve got so much more done’ (‘Sunday Morning’) and the issue of faith, or lack of it, persists throughout the book. The Visitations are the moments we find in among the laundry and the nappies, because or in spite of everything distracting us from them: ‘Sometimes he comes as creosote / And leaves a nasty stain’ (‘The Visitations’).

Simmonds loves rhyme and form, using it elastically and boldly. The book mixes short lucid lyrics with longer pieces, meditations that lope across the page. These conversational poems are rich and complex, unfolding further with each rereading. ‘On the Island of San Michelle’, among the graves of the departed, the expectant mother and partner fail to find Pound’s grave and instead try out the names of the dead as if summoning a ghost rather than a baby:

jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj  you buried alive
jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjin your swirl of limbo

Nobone. jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjWetstar.

At the centre of the collection is a sequence, ‘The Life Coach Variations’. There is no narrative or resolution in these short, irregular verses, just glimpses of a ‘hero’ who is vain, arrogant, lonely and aging. There is mockery or satire here; the subtitles, like the names of cautionary prints, hold us at a remove but in the poems themselves free indirect speech allows Simmonds to induce sympathy for a character who is despairing but trying, hopeless but determined. The final lines even hint at veiled self-portrait: ‘This is me he says squinting./ This is me.’ (‘The Life Coach Paints a Self-Portrait’). Elsewhere, Simmonds mocks her own way of living and there is a constant tension about where importance lies:

The end of time is approaching, but, like a country bus,
jjjjjjjjit’ll come when it comes.
jjjjjjjjOther people die, apparently. We have actually seen it happen.
There are lists and box sets,
there are days when it might still be jacket weather or maybe
jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjtime for the coat.
‘Apocryphal’

It’s not a flawless performance, but actually the looseness, the lack of determined cohesion, is part of this book’s charm. That charm is abundant in ‘Conversation with a Lime Tree’. The title recalls Coleridge’s famous address but the issues are as much economic as spiritual, as much about domesticity as nature, and how all of the above pull at our sense of identity and security. Here is the best of Simmonds; funny, deft, deep but never strained, touching on both modern and eternal issues. I only wish the collection finished on this poem, for it makes nothing happen in the best way; a quiet wonder as if something important has been explained, a fleeting answer visited on us.


Emily Hasler was born in Felixstowe and now lives and works in London. Her pamphlet, Natural Histories (Salt), was published in 2011 and in 2014 she received an Eric Gregory Award. 

 

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

aaaaaa mistake
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
hence love
hence grief

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
disturbance
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
door
to bed
xxxxxxxxxx chair to window

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx  window to floor
to mirror
(‘Room 321’)

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.

Read an interview with Tiffany Atkinson. 

 

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