Footnotes to Water

Zoe Skoulding
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 21, 2019
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Winner of Wales Book of the Year Poetry Award 2020

"Skoulding’s poems span time and space, giving a depth and complexity that unnerve the senses. Her themes have a rare range, not simply providing a dark view on human greed and destruction but also celebrating cultures and landscapes, lightening the pessimism. Wales infuses her work, an infectious enthusiasm for the country’s heritage and passion for languages. The translator’s ability to bridge cultures makes Footnotes to Water an exceptional collection." - DURA

Footnotes to Water imagines a river as a transverse section, cutting through urban and rural spaces, connecting places that are themselves in flux. Zoë Skoulding follows the mysterious path of the culverted Afon Adda in Bangor, close to where she lives, as it draws her into conversations with the city as well as with the sound of the river itself, half-heard under the metal plates of the observation chambers along its route. It leads her to the Bièvre, a lost Parisian stream that once ran through streets of tanneries and past the Gobelins tapestry factory, where the quality of a famous red dye was attributed to the river’s polluted water. Following literary traces as well as exploring landscapes, a sequence on hefting sheep links the two rivers, extending the idea of local habitat or cynefin to encompass the interweaving lives of different cultures and species.

Watch Zoë read alongside the other two poets shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2020 on our Youtube Channel here: 



Review by The London Grip

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In this strange time of physical distancing and disembodied affections, I received a review copy of Zoë Skoulding’s collection electonically. To get a sense of the look of it, I checked the publisher’s site, and immediately loved the book for its front cover: an image of a duck(?)’s feet as seen from underneath, through ice. Unwise to judge by the cover? Not at all; the suggestion of a world scrutinised from an unexpected angle was more than borne out by the poems I discovered inside. More than once, I was reminded of Alice Oswald’s Dart. Like Oswald, in following the course of a river, Skoulding looks for human and natural history, but also for water’s complex ripples of association, and how these shape human thought. And these ‘footnotes’ derive from rivers very different to Oswald’s Dart; they are entirely distinctive, brand-new.

Zoë Skoulding is well-known to many readers, as poet, translator, academic, critic, as editor of Poetry Wales, as a performer, and more; as soon as I imagine I have listed her achievements, I discover another. English-born, she lives in Wales, and while she writes in English, her work is underpinned by a commitment to Welsh culture and language. Footnotes to Water, was a Poetry Book Society choice last year.

The collection is is three parts: ‘Footnotes to Water’, a sequence on the hidden Afon Adda, which flows through and under the city of Bangor; ‘Heft’, poems on sheep; and ‘Teint’, in which she focuses on the Bièvre, a lost river of Paris.

A unifying factor is the exhilarating ways in which Skoulding uses and adapts form. The first sequence is the most diverse, with, for instance, variations on a traditional Welsh seven-syllable line, a fourteen line structure, prose-poems, a collaborative found poem incorporating heard and written comments, and an interview transcript. Both ‘Heft’ and ‘Teint’ are written in a ‘step-down form’ (as described in a review by Thomasin Collins); the lines descend in two or more ‘stepped’ parts. All the poems in ‘Teint’ start with a negative: ‘not a river… not a trace… not a beginning.’ In a body of work focused on deeply serious concerns, this inventiveness offers a delightful counterplay.

Throughout the collection there runs a compelling sense of place, and of the ways in which language and place make and change each other. In ‘Footnotes to Water’ and in the later sequence, ‘Teint’, the meanings of water, and specifically of these half-hidden rivers, are fluid: the element that can cleanse and heal also carries pestilence (‘both body and murderer’), or reminds us of our own impermanence. In ‘Adda’, this restlessness emerges in wordplay; the river’s name is connected to origins (via ‘Adam’), to snakes (‘an adder… /with only the faintest hiss’), to addition and subtraction (‘a river subtracted from its/own presence’). These poems ask you to think again at every turn; words and water are equally unstable:

the things you wash away become your face
 and what you can see in the water is yourself
fenced off in a name but flooding through

At times, this instability hints at a contemporary kind of alienation: the insubstantial nature of a physical world in retreat, increasingly more virtual:

our mouths flower in a name
becoming distant to us

There are moments of great beauty. In ‘Hyacinthoides non-scripta’, for instance, Skoulding weaves together flowers and birdsong, cuckoos and nightingales, magically dissolving the boundaries between sight, scent and song:

They… paint the town
blue and stun it with wild scent…

a blue noise flowering in the cuckoo.

The prose poem ‘Haunt’ makes further, more explicitly political connections between a ‘city of interlocking habits’ and the erosion of old familiarities, driven by economic demands and concealed ‘in a mesh of daily actions’:

…one day it might be difficult to read in this landscape the difference between the
effects of the movement of ice or water and those of the flow of capital

The collaborative and found poems that conclude this section provide a rich mulch of testimony; the flow of the river and then over and through it, the flow of human behaviour and memory. In ‘Maeyc’s Pond’, an enchanting world, now lost almost beyond recall, is lovingly recorded:

It was absolutely pristine.There were two types of stickleback, three-spined and
five-spined, making nests and everything; water scorpions; water boatmen;
whirligig bugs; larvae; beetles; water-spiders…

The book’s middle section ‘Heft’ (meaning, if I’ve understood correctly, habitat or localised knowledge) is equally engaging. The poems present sheep, potentially a Welsh cliché, in challenging ways:

a gentle animal
                     its body clad in wool
                                   harmless, placid by nature
but what you’re counting
                  every night what you dream
                                   is electric an energy

…the rasp of a bleat asking
                 where are we going
                                   the same unanswered question

Like the Adda sequence, these poems tease out information and what comes through the senses, questioning what we think we know. Skoulding evokes the sensation of being part of a flock, poses the question of Dolly the cloned sheep (‘neither dumb nor blond’), and considers the pleasures of rumination, ending on a brilliant reminder of the Good Shepherd:

                   the past is leading you
                            beside the still pool
reeling back death in
                  digital flicker through its
                          shadows and valleys

In the final part, ‘Teint’, the poet returns to a hidden river. The Bièvre, a disregarded Parisian stream, once ran close to the Gobelin tapestry factory, where its polluted water was said to affect the colour of the scarlet dye. La Bièvre is personified as an exploited country girl, poisoned by the tannery work she is drawn to in order to survive. These poems have a darker tone, a strong insistence on the brutality of environmental devastation. The river runs red with more than dye.

The sequence is wonderfully rich in literary references; like a proper Parisian flâneur, the river is haunted by them. In an epigram, Skoulding quotes George Perec on ’sea as rubbish dump…mass burial ground… stinking towns’; on contrast, later there’s Rousseau ‘botanising on the Bièvre’.

To establish La Bièvre’s oppression, the poet evokes Huysmans:

day and night, she washes the filth from stripped skins, soaks the spare fleeces
and raw leather, suffers the grip of alum, the bite of lime and caustic.

Memorably, she expands on Rabelais’ energetic imagery of the befouling of a woman by pissing dogs (a reference to the use of urine in dyeing?), and to Macbeth’s filthy hand that will ‘the multitudinous waves incarnadine.’ This water oozes, stains ‘the back of your throat’. What should quench our thirst or swill us clean is itself ruined, tainted. The sequence ends on a disturbing image of children trapped in a flooding cul de sac.

These are poems I’ve already returned to several times, poems that give more each time they are read. A hard copy is waiting for me in Italy, where I should have been in February to receive it. When times change and I can travel there again, I’ll open an envelope, hold Skoulding’s beautiful collection in my hand.

Review by Thomasin Collins, DURA

Friday, January 31, 2020

Already a much published and praised poet, Footnotes to Water is Zoë Skoulding’s most recent work. This collection has rivers at its heart: the Adda in Bangor, Wales, where she works as a critic and translator, and the Bièvre in Paris. The mystery behind these hidden rivers bursts forth as language and as a symbol of buried heritage.

The collection is divided into three sections: the first, ‘Footnotes to Water’, has poems that delve into the rural and urban Adda, and its coastal connections. The second, ‘Heft’, explores sheep farming, and the third, ‘Teint’ is a previously published collection of poems about a concealed Parisian river. In ‘Teint’ and ‘Heft’ a distinct step-down form is used which creates cohesiveness between the two sections despite the subject matter. In ‘Footnotes to Water’ the forms differ; some prose poetry appears amongst more traditional stanzaic forms. Note how this structural formality allows the weight to fall on imagery and sound:

a river behind itself
this long s disappearing
seriffed into mud or the
torn edges of a map is

Adda or Adam after
Cae Mab Adda never
an origin only a
dried up rib of a river [.]

Using sibilance, this opening poem evokes the Adda’s snake-like shape. Furthermore, the rib of Christian creation to depict gender origins suggests its femininity. Skoulding’s poems are packed with metaphors and nuance. References to history ground these intense images to reality, making them more poignant.

Language links the hidden past to the present. The importance of language is demonstrated in a preoccupation with the musical etymology of plants, rivers, and place names, with quotations and Welsh phrases threaded through the poetry. Language achieves, through oral tradition, a memorialisation of the Adda. As a translator, it is fitting that Skoulding asks the reader to translate too, though some of its charm lies in not being understood. Nonetheless, I found the endnotes helpful in revealing the Welsh phrases.

The emphasis on Welsh culture, such as sheep farming, appears throughout, and the second section of the collection, ‘Heft’, signifies the sheep’s innate knowledge of the landscape. Through the motif of sheep Skoulding introduces subtle ideas. Here social structures are discussed:

what wandering did we learn
                               from the voice that pulls us back
                                                              all we like sheep[.]

The phrase, ‘all we like sheep’ emphasises issues of social pressures and conformity and illustrates restriction as the line is pulled back. In deceptively simple lines and metaphor, the poet has the reader engage with, mull, and digest significant aspects of Welsh identity.

‘Teint’ harks back to the history and destruction of rivers out of sight and mind but places it in the different cultural context of Paris. This section is aptly named as the river Bièvre was polluted by the textile industries on its banks: ‘teint’ being the French word for ‘dyed’, echoing our own word ‘taint’. Skoulding weaves French history and philosophy into her poems, with allusions to Rabelais:

                                     Panurge couldn’t charm so
his revenge a river
                              of dog-desire maddened 
by scent the dogs all came
                                         at once they pissed on her
they pissed at her door in
                                     streams of bitter water [.]

The river as refuse is a dehumanising and repulsive image, and Skoulding’s words unsettle the conscience. Death in the river is conveyed through the brutality of skins and ‘scraped shins’. Carmine from beetles bleeding into the water is juxtaposed with the soft, white ermine. Although the lost river can no longer tell its tale, these poems can.

Skoulding’s poems span time and space, giving a depth and complexity that unnerve the senses. Her themes have a rare range, not simply providing a dark view on human greed and destruction but also celebrating cultures and landscapes, lightening the pessimism. Wales infuses her work, an infectious enthusiasm for the country’s heritage and passion for languages. The translator’s ability to bridge cultures makes Footnotes to Water an exceptional collection.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Footnotes to Water by Zoë Skoulding immediately rose to the surface, in part thanks to the quirky duck feet displayed on the cover as though glimpsed through ice. This quiet collection shines with Skoulding’s finesse – she plays with shape, form, punctuation and alliteration to paint an impression of rivers’ movements against your skull. Throughout, we’re invited to view water in its relation to human feats of engineering, and to compare our own dances and dalliances to that of a river, as in Observation Chamber, “where no light falls surface/ except * in pin-pricks on red water*” Gorgeous.

Skoulding writes of our attempts to confine and control rivers, and of the floods that follow rainfall: “wicking up cracks in plaster/ where the houses drink it in.”

Her rivers mirror our bodies; each striving to speak and make themselves heard, and each craving to explore beyond their outer edges. There’s something ancient in the descriptions surfacing here, even as Skoulding’s sculpted lines tether modernity: “There are/ three days of gathering clouds/ and the cheapest is free.”

The collection is divided into three parts too, with Adda, focused on Bangor’s covered river, followed by Heft, a word meaning, Skoulding explains in Notes & Acknowledgements, “localised knowledge passed on through generations of sheep” or “habitat”. At once, we’re redirected from webbed feet to hooves, celebrating the “twitching flanks”, “wild primrose eyes” and “the silences between.”

Part three is Teint, dreamt up during a Paris residency where the theme of habitat and hidden rivers is continued with the idea of movement, of sound and repetition carrying us back and forth and forth again, so that progress towards our conclusion is barely discernible yet inevitable. Each of these begins with what Skoulding is not describing: “Not flooded marsh but ice/ with skaters engraving/ continuous serifs/ on the halted waters.”

Skoulding examines how we sit against the world around us, as well as how we strive to make it fit around us.

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