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Sounding off

Nicola Thomas

Every Little Sound
Ruby Robinson
Pavilion, 2016
64 pp.
ISBN 9781781382912
£9.99

Jackself
Jacob Polley
Picador, 2016
80 pp.
ISBN 9781447290445
£9.99

The publishing industry has hardly covered itself with glory recently, but away from the grasping mainstream, small presses quietly continue to do their noble work. Liverpool University Press launched its Pavilion Poetry imprint in May 2015 under the editorship of Deryn Rees-Jones and has since published five volumes of poetry, all by women writers, to resoundingly positive reviews. (Three more volumes are due in April 2017.) Pavilion is a welcome addition to the UK’s small-press poetry scene, and treads a useful middle ground between brilliant but tiny independent presses such as Penned in the Margins, Eyewear and Test Centre, and the Big Friendly Giants – Bloodaxe, Faber, Carcanet, Picador and Cape.

The (im)balance of power between the two camps is notable, if unsurprising. Picador alone published a full half of the collections shortlisted for 2016’s T. S. Eliot prize, UK poetry’s most lucrative; together, those last four publishers were responsible for nine of the ten nominees. Twenty-four T. S. Eliot prizes have been awarded since 1993 to books published by a total of just seven presses.

The tenth nominee for 2016, and the only debut collection on the shortlist, was Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound (2016) – published by Pavilion. It’s remarkable for a press this new to achieve such recognition so quickly, but it’s richly deserved: Every Little Sound is a book you’d cheer for even if it weren’t the underdog. A lazy reading might notice its emphasis on mothers, domestic spaces, the (female) body and the pain to which it is subjected, and call its voice vulnerable. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a profoundly thrilling menace behind these poems and how they dismantle the body – often literally, such as in ‘Unlocatable’ (‘I dismembered myself […] disembowelled my body’) and with mock-scientific precision, like when ‘Talisker Bay’ speculates about atomising a corpse frozen in liquid nitrogen.

This dismantling of self and body also heralds the disassembling of language. In ‘Listen’, for example, compound nouns unravel themselves:

Thus, I unscrew my head,
the lid of the pickle jar.

Suspicious-looking head-
board, bed-post, -spread.

Underlying the poems in this collection is the threat that, were the self to dissolve, it might take both language and hierarchies of perception with it: the ability to distinguish the trivial from the significant, to participate in or describe what ‘Apology’ calls ‘consensus reality’. Yet this threat is also a promise, reflecting a secret power to tune in and out of the details of the universe, from the ‘echoes of planets slowly creaking’ to the sound of light beams vibrating (‘Internal Gain’). ‘I know your deepest thread, like a baked-in hair’ mocks the voice of ‘Reader, listener’: the threads, hairs, lines and nets which keep things stable are woven through Every Little Sound, always tense, often on the verge of snapping – and with the female self bound up in and by them, ‘a puppet with strings sewn tight through all her limbs, pulled rigid’ (‘Story’).

Robinson didn’t win the T. S. Eliot prize; Jacob Polley (and Picador) did, for the collection Jackself (2016) – which, with its cover image of a dismantled Jumping Jack, echoes some of Robinson’s themes; but what Robinson takes apart, Polley constructs. Where Every Little Sound foregrounds the disassembly of self as electrifying, hazardous and rewarding, Jackself is a plodding study in self-mythologisation and self-actualisation in literary production, ‘describing a rural upbringing in Cumbria in the language of English folklore’ (as the back-cover blurb unnecessarily clarifies). A poem called ‘Jack Sprat’ begins:

                                   who depends
on strong drink and soft food           gives Jackshit
    comprehends
fearlessly by mouth, lacquering bricks and bottles with curatorial spit.

Jackself’s ostentatiously diverse and fragmented forms rely heavily on this erratic spacing, and are often laboured, resorting to clunky tricks (like vastly over-sized fonts: the words ‘DON’T WAKE HIM’ entirely fill one double-page page spread), or aggressively setting quasi-concrete atomisation (‘Tithe’) against nursery-rhyme prosody (‘Jack O’Bedlam’). Another characteristic move is a sudden sideways shift into profanity, overused to the point of predictability (as in ‘The Goose Shed’ and ‘Les Symbolistes’). There is violence here, too, written into landscape, characters and habits: brutal but directionless, it reveals, by contrast, the sharpness of Robinson’s menace.

Railing against the outcomes of literary prizes or commenting on their irrelevance is an activity almost as futile as bestowing them. Perhaps we’d all do well to simply ignore the whole circus: to fiddle with the dials on our internal cultural volume controls until we’ve succeed in tuning out ‘posh bingo’ altogether. Or despise it: Denise Riley, another 2016 T. S. Eliot nominee, and another Picador poet, was apparently so relieved not to have won that she danced a jig during the ceremony.

But the popular press didn’t tune out when 2015’s T. S. Eliot prize was awarded to Sarah Howe, a young, female poet of Chinese heritage. Instead, they called the merit of her work into question on the basis of her age, gender and ethnic background. Ignoring a mechanism which hands out a year’s wages – not to mention wide publicity and boost to sales figures – to a tiny number of poets in otherwise pretty lean times amounts to a denial of the fact that such decisions are always subject to, and complicit with, the politics of the market. The prize-giving racket has a manifest impact on whose voice is heard, and whose is not. Better, then, to loudly celebrate Robinson’s inclusion in the shortlist, buy more books from Pavilion, and keep our ears to the ground.

~

Nicola Thomas is Stipendiary Lecturer in German at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She researches twentieth-century poetry.

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