The Poetics of Sand: Psammomancy by Brian Lavelle and Mark Valentine

ECOCRITICISM NOWThe essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.

Psammomancy by Brian Lavelle, Mark Valentine, and Jo Valentine (Seacliff Press, February 2018).

Review by Maria Sledmere (@mariaxrose)

While you read, listen to Psammomancy here…

Sand belongs to the great, diffuse class, undeclared, rarely described, but insistent and insinuating, of what may be called quasi-choate matters – among them mist, smoke, dust, snow, sugar, cinders, sleet, soap, syrup, mud, toffee, grit. Such pseudo-substances hover, drift and ooze between consistency and dissolution, holding together even as they come apart from themselves. And, of all of these dishesive matters, sand is surely the most untrustworthy, the most shifting and shifty.

Steven Connor


There’s a tradition that sparked sometime in my youth and unfolded in variable form over time. Every New Year’s Day, I’d seek some thickness of surface, snow or sand, find myself inscribing a message. I was never quite sure who it was I was addressing: some past self, some ill-defined lover, someone missed or wanted or gone. Welcoming in the new year was a turning of matter to language, exposing the churning meaning of the granular semiology already at work in every word. Inland, I walked at the edge of the road, a party I’d left still in motion by morning, the snow crisping concrete to new punctuation. By the shore, things would melt or brush over with tide; the sand would huff then stretch then shift, disintegrate my sentences with particles of limpet, silt and seaweed. I left my driftwood pen for the gulls to peck. That is a sacrificial effort implicit. The writer gives up her ink for others. The gulls would dart holes in the sand, greedy for worms. That was their language of hunger and bullets. I started to wonder if my words were any different, or were they more complex, slippery and fluid?

Is sand the language of matter we trust least? Its connotations, certainly, are that of erosion and coastlines, of patterns enacted then eradicated, of flow and regress, dissolve and ache. As children we sought out lumps of hefty sandstone, finding pleasure in scraping the stones together, watching the sand slough off the edges like skin that came off our bodies in the bath when we scrubbed. It was matter becoming undone, tricking the apparent limits of self. Sand came out of sand: it seemed infinite, wondrous; the Blakean adage, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour’. Humankind has long used sand to measure time, clasping an exactitude of matter that trickles in the flip of an hourglass. Trapped within two bulbous vases of glass, tipped upside down, sand’s patient slippage and dissolve tracks eons or minutes. Up close, it must sound a terrible rasping. The world’s intimate friction, playing out at scales unimaginable, interminable. The salt of the sea rubbing borders raw. Sand marks the edges of inhabitable land, a territorial skin. Like all skin, over time its micro-components resolve and change. No iteration of land or beach or stone is the same.

Psammomancy: the art of parsing or scrying with sand. This is the title of a recent collaborative project, a 16-page booklet and CD, published by Seacliffe Press and featuring the poetry of Mark Valentine, alongside the intricate soundscapes of Brian Lavelle and Jo Valentine’s black-and-white photography. It begins with a declarative account of present motion, presence in motion: ‘Fine sand is poured from a pouch, / trickled onto a tray or table, / fingertips are used to find figures, / tracing, erasing, effacing, shaping’. Note the lack of enjambment, the precision of clause like a curl of sand lipping over another. I imagine bars of sand, curved to a fleeting completeness. This is a sequence ridged with tactility. It is writing about writing, establishing a sort of paralanguage for material ekphrasis, the mysterious process of intersemiotic translation whereby image becomes text and text becomes image, sound swirling between each as its own chiasmic data. The process by which one object interacts with another, in spite of mutual metaphysical withdrawal.

Concurrent with this paralanguage is a sense of residue, of lingering archivisation: ‘At the end, the sand is stroked clear, / the figures disappear / but they remain in the grains, still there’. These lines appear in the first section of Psammomancy, opening us into worlds that fold back on their close. Every line we will read, they announce, is destined for human erasure in the face of terrestrial memory. Our marks upon sand form different kinds of legibility, preservation; they connect to a more general sense of our material legacy on Earth. What we forget through generations, but the land remembers. The marks we make on its surface may vanish from our vision, but stay hidden, embedded in the elements, for eons to come – like Freud’s mystic writing-pad, upon which surface words may be scrubbed out but a perceptible trace remains in the waxen layers below. Sand is one churning layer in the world’s Anthropocenic unconscious.

How might we articulate this material ‘residue’? What forms of ecopoetics are appropriate for rendering its suffusion of time and elemental data? In Ecology Without Nature (2007), Timothy Morton calls for an ‘ambient poetics’, a form of environmental aesthetics whereby the world evoked is not one with a straightforward divide between subject and environment, self and other. The idea of ambient poetics creates a surround sound effect of textuality and subjectivity; its aesthetic result is to render a sense of ‘world’, in all its material bewildering and strangeness. With Lavelle’s music in my ear – its shifts between passages fluent and scintillating, abrasive and smooth – and with textural photography drawing my eye to the opposite page, Valentine’s poetry is diffused into a form of intersemiotic play between these forms. At once I am caught in the glistering detail of close-up sand, my eyes picking for pattern and gradient within monochrome, and drawn across rippling passages of piano, interspersed with birdsong and sweetening, lifting synth pedals.

Such poetry at times acquires an incantatory idiom, drawing mythological narrative into grand refrain: ‘But he, a modern, could see instead in cigarette smoke’. Such loftier diction estranges the speaker’s position from the intimacy implied by Lavelle’s soundscapes; we teeter towards the zone of a cool pastoral. While bees buzz close and birds trill from above, we read from the point of view of the observer observing. And even the observed, the ‘modern’, is a reader of sorts, practicing a kind of ‘libanomancy’: ‘the reading of incense fumes’; an ancient practice, as old as ‘four thousand years’, but here enabling the parsing of everyday chemical emission in the form of smoking. As Bruno Latour reminds us, in We Have Never Been Modern (1991) being modern actually necessitates a realisation of discursive hybridity: coping with climate change, ozone holes or geopolitical events involves the breakdown of psychological distinctions between nature and culture. Valentine’s ‘modern’ acquires, sells and transmits his knowledge through the hazy practice of libanomancy: a kind of metaphor for metaphysical solidities becoming airy, indistinct – to be always studied later, to promise more.

In Valentine’s descriptions – ‘He was young, olive-skinned, had fierce, Assyrian eyes’ – there are flickers of Coleridge’s Oriental flirtations, evoking a decadent and ‘exotic’ land elsewhere: somewhere replete with a secret knowledge, the locked-away intricacies implied by ‘glinting gilt obelisk’. Language itself, here replete with phonetic symbolism, the glossy consonance of ‘gl’ and crispy assonance of ‘i’ sounds, coyly sparkles with its own referential encryption. There is a playful duality of meaning, dwelling between the organic and social: ‘They called him “Pasha”, half in fun’. ‘Pasha’ meaning the highest rank in the Ottoman military-political system, but also a sprawling, two-tailed butterfly, something you might try to snap tight in your ‘slim tin’ of endophytic secrets, nested within more secrets, as the pasha larva make their bed in the silky wires of their kin.

This paralanguage in which nature writes (is writing), in which writing itself is the kin of nature, a performative effect of causality’s basis in aesthetics (see Morton’s 2013 book, Realist Magic), is a staple of ecopoetics. Imagine the tapestries woven by silkworms, the light shows emitted by fireflies; is that not a form of aesthetic interaction between life-forms – enzymes sparking with oxygen? Then recall Wordsworth’s infamous daffodils: ‘They stretched in never-ending line / Along the margin of a bay’. The flowers snatched ‘at a glance’ by the poet’s mind are transformed into the amorphous ‘Ten thousand’ recalled in the poem, a twinge of sublimity that figures writing’s eco-mimetic limit. The nature we reproduce in our writing is hardly natural, as nature itself is a discursive construction, always already filtered through our cultural sensoriums, our anthropo-aesthetic proceedings. Wordsworth’s ‘never-ending line’ is as much poem as plant; the bay’s margins are as much the margins of his own page. There is an implicit sense here of furnishing what initially appears a straightforward ‘nature’ poem (a joyous evocation of organic vision or encounter with landscape) with a metalanguage of ambient inscription, the anamnestic play between image/text, memory and data that crystallises as moments of written epiphany, resulting in euphoric intimacy: ‘And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils’.

There is a certain amount of modulation and oscillation in Psammomancy. One voice occurs, is quoted, only to be erased and transcribed, rebuffed by another. Like daffodils swaying in a lake-blown breeze, transcribing the sky-lit ripples of water to sepalling rustles, the visual language of inscription is parsed into audible language, the wisps of speech remaining forever conditional, nested in brackets: ‘(As if reciting a message.)’. There is a sense of the conditional; of experimenting in what might be made of this parsed sand, this effect of letters upon the strand. A quick gasp that settles in obsessional inscription, collection: ‘Clean sand in a lacquer bowl’, ‘the sand upon a book’; again the ornamentation of secrets. As with the infamous duck-rabbit illusion, glancing upon patterns in the sand necessitates a form of gestalt switch where we must make a psychic decision upon what it is we see. It is not completely reducible to one thing, but shimmers with metaphysical identities.

The language of sand is human-making sense out of geologic ‘randomness’, the scattering of water, rocks and abrasion just so, an earthly Un coup de des jamais: ‘The patterns were strange — / spirals, swirls, curling waves’. The semi-consolation of half-rhyme between ‘strange’ and ‘waves’ indicates the presence of pattern, less as something formed and prescribed and more as a happy accident of language. The multimedial experience of poem and sound asks us to think about how we translate the visual shapes and markings found in the photographs, which show animal tracks, tidal inscriptions, ripples, the epidermal drag of silt and twig. We might think about the trajectories of the life-forms and objects that made these markings; we tune closely to nonhuman forms of aesthetic causality, of writing. The reading of such lines is suggested as a kind of alchemy, a recipe of possible predictions or gamble with chance, ‘and read the uncovered words, / or even, the spirits willing, upon a race-card’. The loops and strains of Lavelle’s music, bristling in and out of sync with our reading of these careful, often iambic lines, implies a flickering between human and decidedly other acts of communication. If iambic pentameter is the metre most closely associated with ‘natural’ human speech, then the fact that Valentine gestures towards its possibility but rarely completes his lines this way reveals the strains of singularly human lyric.

If sand, as Steven Connor puts it, is a ‘dishesive’ substance, then it necessitates a poetics of ruin or unravelling; the presence of the speaking subject dissolving into her environment: ‘Some said there was another presence / within her voice, not just from her sweet throat. / A viol of the soul, perhaps’. The ‘soul’, that beautiful intangible Cartesian thing, becomes an aeolian device, a ‘viol’ for channelling the twangs and affects of the world around it, rather than a font for pure self-expression. As the music progresses, organs and swelling strings fill the soundscape with multiple presences, the suggestion of rapture and spirit. Connor’s mentioning of sand as a ‘diffuse class’ of matter is fully dramatised as Lavelle/Valentine/Valentine enact the multidimensional diffusion of sound and sense across the semiotic space of the air (from music) and page (image/text). How evenly, we might ask, is this sound energy spread in its given environment? What kinds of attritions arise between these forms, where might we seek the ‘original’ thought?

Voice, of course, is always a kind of deferral from thought: the implied transcendental signified of the internal ‘I’; the secondhand tainting of language and sense, spoken and written, as signifying chains. Section IV of the poem makes reference to Margaret Watt Hughes’ eidophone, a device which produced geometric patterns from the timbres and resonance of the human voice, creating what she called ‘Voice-Figures’. Such sketches revealed, as she put it, ‘the intensities of vocal sounds’, and one of the materials she used was sand, often mixed with lycopodium powder. What began as a simple physics experiment evolved into aesthetic play, as Watts Hughes compared her results to ‘a forget-me-not flower’, trying out different colour pastes to achieve various effects. From this visual expression of sound dynamics, she was able to map out the spatiality and multidimensional form of the voice, speaking or singing. By explicitly referencing this remarkable apparatus for intersemiotic translation, Valentine asks us to be similarly hold in our minds the transformative, simultaneous possibilities of matter and sense.

Psammomancy itself performs this experimental translation, this doubling of lettering and shape. Her voice split across many expressive channels, Watts Hughes herself becomes ‘a lost shape / dimly seen’. There’s a hint of the sublime here, a scientific sublime where the maker recedes into her work. I’m reminded of a passage from Wordsworth’s Prelude, where the young poet steals a boat on the lake and experiences his guilty, gleeful awakening in the landscape around him, burning through him: the mountain ahead looming as a ‘grim shape / growing still in stature’. The terrifying trick of parallax prompts a (mis)reading of a relatively static landscape, indicates the mysterious, often tricksterish play between nonhuman things and our psychic sensoriums. Affect, truly, rearranges our world. Lavelle dramatises this in the climactic passages of his music, which follow synth-like groans moving in and out of close/distant feedback, brought up soaring on organ pedals adorned with the distortion of electric notes like spits of static purposefully prolonged. You find yourself closing the book, closing your eyes, to focus on this sound; the way it drags you through its waywardly intense trajectories.

The final section of Psammomancy returns us to a simple past tense of ecomimesis, the instating of visual phenomena in a particular landscape: ‘On the sands of Lindisfarne / the sea had just receded’. The allusion to Lindisfarne is perhaps significant because the Holy Isle itself is accessible by a tide bar that appears but twice a day, is otherwise erased by the waves. Natural access to the land, to its geophysical secrets, is permitted only by the aesthetic dance of sand and sea. There is a kind of ecstasy here, as in a cyclical Pagan festival: ‘Veils danced / on the glistening surface / like visible air’. Like absence coming into presence, the island becoming mirage as much as myth. The minutiae of this world makes up the semiotic fragments of a writerly text (in the Barthesian sense of a text whose meaning can be infinitely played, a text which gestures towards the porous plurality of signification but does not close such loops or holes): ‘All the grains had a quickened grace’. Is it the tide that pulls this quickening, pulls at the words? The fact that these are left-justified rather than space-scattered, abstract poems implies a deliberate attempt at human sense-formation, at rearranging what meaning is to be gleaned from the lines left in the sand by other things. A deliberate parsing, the application of grace.

But as ‘quasi-choate’ matter, sand is never fully self-complete; and is instead the rubble of other things, ‘shifting and shifty’, an ‘untrustworthy’ medium for bearing meaning (Connor). Similarly, a word bears the taint of its antithesis, the residue of various signifying chains which break it apart the more we search and relate. Sentences crumble into myriad semantic grains. What might be present, what might imply presence, is a dream displaced into a materialised perpetuity of sense to-come: ‘There was a sense of fragile silence / as if in a vast, clear funnel, / the sandglass of the eternal’. This is how the poem closes. A sandglass is a simple tool for measuring time, for expressing a temporal limit as aesthetic object. Poetry, perhaps, is that idealised clarity, the ‘vast, clear funnel’ that sorts everything, warps it into form. It can never attain such clarity, but only gesture towards its possibility. What lies at the heart of language is the brokenness of subjectivity between modulating words and surfaces, voices and depths, ‘a sense’ of this ‘fragile silence’ between forms.


Secondary Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974.

Connor, Steven. ‘The Dust That Measures All Our Time’ Birkbeck University of London, 17 April 2012 [Lecture]. Available at: <; [Accessed 15.4.18].

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Watts Hughes, Margaret. ‘VISIBLE SOUND — VOICE-FIGURES’, Century Magazine (1891), Vol. 42:37.


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