“WHAT’S UNINTELLIGIBLE ISN’T SILENT”: Zoë Skoulding’s “The Museum of Disappearing Sounds”
Zoë Skoulding The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2013)
By Calum Gardner
Are there in language, and in poetry, natural things? Some of the findings of linguistics and biology suggest that the human brain and larynx have been shaped by evolution to facilitate language. But what about writing? We haven’t had time to evolve to be writers since the invention of the sound-symbol and logogram. Much modern poetry is not written to be spoken aloud, at least not primarily, and anyone who attends poetry readings even occasionally will be familiar with a poet’s awkward explanation of how something looks on the page before beginning to read. It seems to me that writing which is not representational, like a narrative or vignette, or else the ‘score’ for a vocal performance like a sound poem, is a decidedly unnatural thing. Yet many of these poems are still put together with consideration of their sound, even if it is only the sound inside our own heads, or whispered to the empty room we are reading in when we come across a particularly arresting phrase. Zoe Skoulding’s latest collection is an exhibition of these phenomena, these disappearing sounds.
If we live in cities, or even among squares of carefully-managed farmland, we live in states of considerable un-nature. The proportions of the truly wild spaces of the earth are strange to us, not to mention the intensities of its sounds and silences. It is difficult to think of a moment in which we cannot hear the low hum of a machine, or the roaring of tyres on asphalt – even on a hillwalk, miles from the nearest road, we still probably hear the crunch of human-made boot on human-made path and the slithering of rainproof polyester. Skoulding’s poems often probe the limits of human sounds; in the poem ‘Metamorphic’, the speaker is making such a journey through nature. After a “stumble in mud,” she hears “a wood’s engine buzz,” which puts us in mind both of the various creatures of the forest and a logging operation. Then, she hears an echo, “my voice comes back not mine” as the sound bounces against the “metamorphic” rock. The title of the poem is both a geological category (rock that has been changed over time) and a hint about these extra-human sounds. They change the human things, like voices and wills, that come into contact with them, in a way we can’t control – and they show us the things about our own human world and selves we still don’t understand. “What’s / unintelligible isn’t silent […] it’s most of it, including you.”
Such poems also force us to wonder what will happen as the sounds continue to disappear, and much of the collection is devoted to imagining the future. Skoulding tells us in the notes that ‘The Man in the Moone’ is named after a 1638 work of science fiction about a lunar civilisation with “a wordless musical language.” The sequence imagines languages that are both more and less ‘perfect’ than ours. For instance, if “between us thought were pressure / distributed in music,” thought would be a shared substance rather than that residing in two separate heads. Articulated sentences are “discovering a distance” when they have to travel between two people, yet in the same way, Earth language preserves individuality: “only I / could have written this only you will read it.”
The moon-travellers implied by the poem have been struggling with competing ideas of language since their “impact event,” finding “the moon eclipsed by the idea of moon […] a blue that eats away at stones.” The idea of colour put in place by the presence of the moon and the sky “eats away” at the mundane, which “stones” often figure – “the stones under my feet,” Skoulding says in a later poem. This might be a fear of a truly perfect language, but it could also be a worry for the imperfect language of Earth when we take it to be perfect. Ideas are so powerful that they overcome everything else. The poems of the book often disrupt this – they suggest or describe scenes with multiple ideas and events rather than a single defining narrative. In ‘Ô’, each stanza begins with the word “while.” Its vocative title calls our attention, but the poem disperses that attention once it has been grabbed. One stanza begins “while the moon’s full of lost things,” in reference to a fanciful superstition but perhaps most specifically John Russell’s use of it in his 1836 Adventures in the Moon, which tells us that “Each country on our earth has a separate district in the moon, to which its lost things repair.” For Skoulding this includes “emails of the dead,” and there is an image we can attach to the moon (given the poem’s strange syntax) as marked by “watered silk grainy surface / footage.” Disappearing texts are here as well as disappearing sounds, and these things blend together in poetry, the poems both frustrating and satisfying “a restless wish for / what can’t be googled,” as the poem ‘Wingprint’ puts it, “and if so is it knowledge” – ? Whether it’s knowledge or not, it is present, makes a mark on the world and can’t be ignored, for as we read in ‘Metamorphic’, “[w]hat’s / unintelligible isn’t silent, isn’t transcendent / blank.”
There is a zone in poetry, a kind of thick linguistic membrane, that separates the material nature of language – sound and letters – something remarkable in itself when mastered, from meaning-making. In this intermediate space, ideas may be lingering before they disappear completely. The poem ‘Thermophile’ expands a simple instance of misunderstanding a sign into a whole conceptual world. The Greek city Thermopylae is ‘Hot Gate’, and the Parisian Rue de Thermopyles is named after it, but then the “glance” of the poet turns it into “Thermophiles […] Those who / love hot places…” The Parisian context and the first expression of the recognition of the mistake, “not gates but lovers,” encourage us to read this as a love-poem, and it is a very beautiful one. But this is not in itself sonic. This book is not a single-issue text, but rather a collection of often-related poems, and like a museum we wander through it without always putting a clear narrative on the exhibits. Yet I sometimes felt as if by doing this, I was allowing sounds I was listening for, solutions I was hoping for, to disappear.
What is deferred in writing is the place where writing is hoped for. The aspiration of a text like ‘The Rooms,’ the sequence at the end of the book, is to represent the no-place, but this has to be deferred because poems are themselves sites, place. ‘The Rooms’ protests that it is not a sequence, as its titles are out of numerical order, but it is still narrative. Each poem begins “When entering the room,” a clause which allows a pronoun or tense to fill the main part of the sentence, but still summons a surrounding for the reader. Its epigraph is taken from Canadian poet Lisa Robertson, also a profoundly innovative poet of place, and reads: “A room situates the cadence of habit” – this is a way of explaining room-tone. In the machine world, each room has a tone: hum of fridge, sizzle of lightbulb. What Robertson is driving at is rather that environments influence what we do in them, but sound is an important part of this. Poems, too, set up the sound-room in which we have the thoughts they prompt in us. They do this far more than other texts, as we are reading them for sound. The phrase “brick and blocked exits” bricks and blocks us in with the “and,” and even though “analog” and “digital” are both dactyls (DAH-da-da), the “mind sweeps” the former but “footsteps tick” the latter, setting up two competing sound-spaces, and their pairing carries associations of technology and the disappearance of old ways of life. At least some of the rooms are hotel rooms, and their impermanence means that their “tone” is one of alienation, “the silence clanging / between hangers in the empty wardrobe.”
Talking about Skoulding’s poetic practice seems to demand some mention of its fearlessly investigative character. Nothing in these poems is tame, short-sighted, or glib. Often I ask myself to consider a poem I’m reading either as an expression of a feeling or as the record of experiment. In The Museum of Disappearing Sounds this strategy reveals itself as fundamentally flawed. It is demonstrated to me repeatedly that poems are not iterations of a principle but contain within themselves a theoretical notion and its execution. ‘Ex Situ’ contains language from a train journey (“We will shortly be arriving into,” italics in the original), but also advances the notion of language as material, “spattered all over.” In this case it is writing on a t-shirt but it could also be a sonic spattering (‘language’, not just ‘writing’). Rarifying “We will shortly be arriving into,” a phrase train travellers hear without thinking about, actually belongs to the rather specialised future continuous – not, “we will shortly arrive,” but “we will shortly be arriving.” It speaks of a state of arrival in which we will soon find ourselves. But if we are on a train, reading, sleeping, or zoning out, do we really enter that state of arrival? We are not in situ, but ex situ, “as places merge and we / arrive into and continue on.” The grammar of this, the poem’s closing two-line stanza, is incomplete. We do not arrive into them, as the prepositional object is missing, but that is grammatical in the second example, “continue on,” although it still violates the old prescriptive rule that forbids placing a preposition at the end of the sentence. The unpunctuated ‘Penrith Carlisle Crewe’ is more found train language; the fact that these stations are in the wrong order may reflect the fact that Skoulding didn’t have a map or train timetable to hand when composing the poem, but I am inclined to read it as a further ‘spattering’. Also, the choice of “spatter,” not ‘splatter’, is telling – the latter is messier, the former almost clinical, as in the forensic science of blood spatter analysis. Language’s appearances in the world may seem random or meaningless, but in fact when we look at them they have a lot to tell us. As Edwin Morgan said, and as his poetry often recognises, “Nothing is not giving messages.”
The title of this collection is taken from R. Murray Schafer, who founded the discipline of acoustic ecology – a concern for the sound-environment in which human beings have found ourselves living. Its principal organ is the World Soundscape Project, a research group which has been studying and publishing about our changing sonic environment for decades, recording what is in the process of disappearing. Skoulding, too, is a scholar of human environments and the collected volumes over which she has recently presided reflect this (Metropoetica: Poetry and Urban Space: Women Writing Cities, ed. by Skoulding [Seren, 2013]; Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space [Palgrave Macmillan, 2013]). Poetry’s place in that concern is hard to pin down. Sometimes poems are vehicles for sounds, sometimes field reports. In the book’s title sequence, in the museum’s “xhibit 3” (sic), the speaker hides from someone, or something, seeking to “unpick / pixel by pixel / the stones under my feet.” The almost onomatopoetic “pick” becomes reversed in “unpick” (which could still make a “pick” sound if it were literal) and then is echoed in the non-material, electronic “pixel.” However, pixels are if anything the most real, most material aspect of the visual computer experience. They are the real things that allow us to understand data as an image. But here, the really real things, the “stones under my feet,” are pushed off into unreality because of how surrounded we are by operations that translate data. “I vanish in lossy compression,” says ‘exhibit 4’; the human subject, the ‘I’, disappears into those translation processes among “the rhythms that cradle us.”
Is the loss of a state of sonic nature as great a threat as it might seem? I don’t find The Museum of Disappearing Sounds to be in panic – if it were, it would be a late panic, because we are already immersed in the sounds of human artifice. The apocalyptic poem ‘cellar door’, in the sequence ‘Inventory’, does imagine a scenario when fear would be warranted. JRR Tolkien opined that ‘cellar door’ was the most beautiful phrase in English, but Skoulding finds “beauty of a word no guard / against the radiant air.” The use of ‘radiant’ is brilliantly wrong – a word that means ‘shining’ comes to mean ‘irradiated’. Perhaps we’re supposed to take from this that the wildness of nature cannot be put off by language, thus giving hope for the disappearing sounds. I am inclined, however, to read a more ambivalent attitude into this, seeking the real “door shut beyond words.” This powerful phrase indicates both where the door is, on the “other side” of language figured as a barrier, but also to what extent the door is shut – completely, entirely, “beyond words.” These two senses feed into each other. These poems do not scrabble at the door of words but try, paradoxically, to be quiet enough to listen for what is beyond it.