The Museum of Disappearing Sounds
‘By perusing Skoulding’s exhibitions, we, her readers, reconnect with a disregarded, integral part of our life’s cacophony.’ – DURA
The disappearing sounds of Zoë Skoulding’s new collection may be either in the rich sonic environments that the poems observe, or in the resonance of words themselves, which exist in traces of speech and breath.
‘The Man in the Moone’ takes its title from a 17th century work of science fiction in which lunar inhabitants can communicate their thoughts via music alone. But rather than aspiring to reach beyond language, these poems focus on the spaces that words occupy, looking at how ‘a sentence reverses itself between two pairs of eyes’ or noting ‘the distance drifted by a word shaken loose from border controls’.
Skoulding’s characteristically inventive approach to form emerges in a fractured sonnet sequence based on the coincidences of room numbers. Repeated actions build haunting interior spaces which the reader is invited to enter, each poem becoming a room in which sound ‘bounces off four walls’, as memory accumulates in the subtle rhythms of everyday life.
These poems can provoke states of eerie unease, or of passion evoked with shimmering densities of verbal texture. We can feel the ice in ‘Gwydyr Forest’ “Freezing under feathered/ water landscapes”. Provisional landscapes in which the ground itself is ‘aslant’ call for an active state of perception in which ‘I can do more dangerous things /just with my eyes’.
Exploratory and alive to the senses, The Museum of Disappearing Sounds creates new perspectives on language and the world in which it exists.
Review from Write out Loud
Writing on her staff profile page for Bangor University, where she is senior lecturer in the school of English, Zoë Skoulding says: “I perform poetry with field recordings and electronic music as an exploration of relationships between language and the physical environment.” This cross-art nature of her work is the clear driving force in this intriguing and highly-disciplined collection, shortlisted for the 2013 Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry.
To expand further on Skoulding’s remit: the poems here deal with sounds that are all around us, but that don’t necessarily reach our ears. The poems attempt to capture the sounds of enclosed spaces, extended open spaces, environmental sounds, voice characteristics and the vibrations of responsive surfaces. They are not concerned with delivering point-blank, bull’s eye statements, but each operates instead as a kind of investigatory net that is cast over a location. The mesh of sound connections that is drawn in as a result is what is on offer. The resultant work is a “synchronicity” of times and places rather than a “causality”; a promotion of a process over product.
The collection is divided into several smaller clusters of poems. The opening suite of five poems is a response to the question posed by Canadian writer and musician R Murray Schafer, “Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?”, and each one of these “exhibits” reads as a sound installation, full of the “crackle of static”, “the wind on the microphone” and rhythm that “turns to pitch and sinks to drone”.
‘Inventory’ is a mini-collection of eight poems that examines with a forensic eye the forms and functions of everyday objects, including a colander, a Singer sewing machine and a casserole dish. My favourite of these is ‘television’, which ends with the lines:
… the stars
are humming quietly in
skies that haven’t reached us yet
Equally impressive is the suite of three poems set under the title ‘In Search of Lost Time’, which, Skoulding tells us in her notes, makes use of search engine results for Proust’s title. Here, Skoulding investigates how broken software, unreliable data, jet-lag and migraines cause us to maintain an uncertain, bewildering relationship to the actual passage of time. The sequence ends beautifully with the lines: “Between accident and absence / the world had changed into something unrecognisable.”
There is a suite of three poems written from the point of view of a narrator and his/her interaction with the voices/ghosts of three French poets. On a trip down into the Parisian sewers, Baudelaire turns to the narrator and says: “I’m so / tired of embracing clouds.” Paul Valéry, encountered in “the cemetery by the sea”, beseeches the narrator: “Don’t you / realise how beautiful silence can be.” Rimbaud is met out at sea as a “drowned man insisting je est je est je est.”
The collection concludes with the its main suite of poems, entitled ‘The Rooms’ (the word ‘stanza’ derives from the Italian word for ‘room’). This suite of 14 poems could be renamed ‘Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Room’, for the similarity to Wallace Stevens’ poem is striking. But instead of a blackbird, the focus of Skoulding’s suite is once again sound itself. In the first, ‘Room 321’, the narrator says: “It’s here that everything / is happening twice / once in the body / and once in the words for it.” In the second, ‘Room 201’, this idea is developed: “When entering the room he’s listening for / the two silences/the one inside and/the one outside the window.”
In her notes, Skoulding acknowledges the influence of American composer Alvin Lucier’s work on ‘The Rooms’. Lucier’s most famous work is ‘I am sitting in a room’, a sound piece in which Lucier recorded himself in a room saying “I am sitting in a room”, then playing back the line into the now empty room and recording that, then playing back that line into the room and recording that, and so on. Gradually, the original speech fades and merges with the resonant frequencies of the room itself, which eventually take over. Lucier’s piece demonstrates that the listener is no longer merely the passive recipient of meaning, but rather the place in which meaning is created, and this is Skoulding’s modus operandi too.
In between these suites, there are single poems of great beauty, which also explore the soundscapes of single locations. These resemble the work of another sound artist, Luc Ferrari, who made field recordings of places and then edited them down into highly compressed, narrative-driven sound pieces. ‘Gwydyr Forest’ and ‘Easy Listening (Penmon, Anglesey)’ are poems that investigate the “lattices of molecules” and “skin and blood vessels” and posit such phenomena as “the surface as / écoute.”
All these poems share a spectral, haunting beauty. They are fine spun and well balanced, but material and granular too. They seem fragile at first, but repeated readings reveal their tensile strength; pull a poem in one direction and the poem bends, but doesn’t break. While reading them, the poems reminded me of many other things: the black glassiness of obsidian, the intricacy of filigree, the ghostliness of X-rays, the blasted music of Thomas Köner and Mika Vainio. Skoulding is one of the most adventurous, elegant and controlled poets working today and her collection is a tremendous achievement.
Review from Poetry London
The Museum of Disappearing Sounds, Zoe Skoulding’s beautifully conceived and executed collection, contains – as does Hadfield’s – many lines that seem to be sound bites for the whole project, like this one from a section entitled ‘The Rooms’:
When entering the room he’s listening for
the one inside and
the one outside the window
Or, from ‘The Man in the Moone’ (I): ‘what it looks like from here is all I can tell you’.
The collection charts disappearance rather than disappearances, though Laika the space dog does disappear in ‘The Man in the Moone’. Poems gently probe the phenomenon of erasure, both of non-being-after-being, or non-being-within-being. A lot of it is about sound, but silence, and the sounds that are just out of reach or out of range, are equally as important. The book operates, as its title suggests, through various taxonomies. The first poem, ‘The Museum for Disappearing Sounds’, opens with ‘exhibit I’ (of five):
in breath a crackle of static
a detuned radio in one lung
And ends with:
a shoreline just out of sight
at the base of the skull
The Museum of Disappearing Sounds includes two series – one ca;;ed ‘Inventory’, and the one called ‘The Rooms’, In which the rooms are all numbered, and which finishes the book. There are several sequences, and also three consecutive poems called ‘Baudeliare’, ‘Valéry’, and ‘Rimbaud’. The language is quiet, almost forensically meticulous, and often surprising. This precision almost acts as the pin that pins down an exhibit in a museum, the vanishing being.
A short poem called ‘Gropers’ uses criminal slang from The Canting Academy: or, the Devil’s Cabinet Opened, an exhaustive 1673 guide to the underclasses. These ‘disappearing sounds’ have a faint echo in modern Polari, which was the slang of homosexual and demi-mode London up till the 1950s and 60s.
by gym-stick gropers fall in darkman
pike a series of minute perceptions up and down
the dancers of home-bred treachery
through your maunders or meanders of matter
stow your whids and keep one ogle open
in the peeper conglomerations of dust…
In between all this, meanings slip away. Syntax slips deftly into itself so phrases lock other phrases onto themselves like a line dance of meaning. What remains, what sounds strong, is meaning itself, which comes up when you’re not looking (or listening) for it. Call it the sound of the universe.
These poems are great because it can provoke states of eerie unease, or of passion evoked with shimmering densities of verbal texture. Also there is this idea that their way of communication is through the music. <br />