Review: The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Zoë Skoulding)

(ISBN 978-1-78172-071-4, Seren, £8.99)

I was looking forward to reading this collection, the title was intriguing and I found the cover image of a grid made up of what looks like extractor fans striking. This is Skoulding’s (who is the outgoing editor of Poetry Wales) third collection with Seren. The first thing that I noticed was that as a whole the collection seems to have less of a focus on sound than the title had led me to expect. The title of the collection comes from R. Murray Schafer’s essay “I Have Never Seen a Sound” in which he says:

“I asked “Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?” At that time, there were almost none. So I sent my students out to record the sounds of Vancouver, the city in which we lived. Every sound recorded was to be accompanied by a card indicating the time and place recorded, the history of the sound object, and any social observations that might be significant.”

(Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter,

To me the poems appear, at least on first reading, to be more focused on the visual – conjuring up scenes and images rather than soundscapes. However, sound is present in some form in every poem, although not always the central theme – it feels like Skoulding is requiring the reader to make a commitment to seeking out the sounds alluded to in the title. I rather enjoyed the playfulness of this and it did begin to feel rather like I was visiting a real museum. I also found that the sound within the poems – both referred to, and in the musicality of the writing – became more apparent on a second or third reading, which adds a pleasing depth to the book. As a reader I am drawn to poetry that I can come back to again and again to discover new meaning and texture.

A striking feature of this collection is that these poems, in spite of their frequent intimacy with the everyday, refuse to become personal or confessional. The closest they come to being personal are some allusions to the landscape of childhood in Inventory. There are no narrators as such. The poems are more a series of thoughts and word pictures, an exploration of vision and sound. These are poems that play with language and form, moving around the page and drawing the reader into a visual journey. Some even take the reader on an actual journey, starting from an external point and travelling inwards:

When entering the room in memory
that holds inside it yet another room

inside it another

another inside that one
                                               smaller still

down to the smallest imaginable
cell in the skull

(from Room 401)

And though the poems are playful – these are tightly constructed edifices, with not a word out of place. Skoulding uses language both skillfully and inventively – she is inventive with the way she puts words together, and where she places them on the page although some of the poems were perhaps a little too abstract for my taste. In particular, some risk coming across as a little too impenetrable for some readers – the Rooms sequence being a key example. This sequence, perhaps more than all the others, reflects Skoulding’s interest in surrealism and experimental writing:

Footsteps tick digital
this foot
                 that foot with no memory
while the mind sweeps analog through sound waves
bouncing off four walls

                                              This was the phrase you
                      each note altering the last

this was its cadence falling from major
to minor
                  willow over water where birds
chant in broken rivers

(from Room 204)

Each poem in the sequence is like a moving snapshot of a room that the narrator has either previously occupied in some way or just come into. The poems dodge backwards and forwards in time playing with the idea of memory, space and light until we are not sure what is real and what is not.

The poems in the collection that give the reader something more concrete to work with offer a clearer and less constrained insight into Skoulding’s distinctive voice: her poems resonated most easily with me when they conjured up images or soundscapes that I could picture a little more clearly, or hear in my mind. Inventory was a sequence that I particularly connected with: each poem in this sequence of eight is a study of an everyday object such as a colander, a cellar door or a sewing machine. Skoulding takes each object and examines it in a new and often surprising way. The poems are conventional at first glance; they don’t move around the page like some of the other poems in the collection, but instead benefit from a clean, restrained approach to typography that leaves out the unnecessary noises of punctuation and uppercase letters. The true vibrancy of these poems, however, is in the language. They nestle somewhere between childhood memories and the playful inventiveness of the prose poems in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Skoulding takes things that are familiar to us, and, through deft use of ostranenie or defamiliarisation, makes them seem strange and odd so that the reader sees them anew. Although she does not make the objects quite as alien as those of Stein’s poems, she does come at them slantways – even the line breaks are used to slow us down and take us by surprise, so that the reader has to concentrate to catch the real meaning beyond the music (and there is much musicality here) of the words.

clatter of a lid on blue
and white enamel inside
there’s mackerel a small catch
mushroom onion tomato
a child picking endlessly
over the bones brought back from
far out at sea thrashing in…

(from enamel casserole)

Each poem in the collection is a micro-environment: an installation of words that the reader has to navigate around. Some are more difficult to navigate than others, but the beauty of the collection is that you can keep coming back to it and each time discover something new and fresh. It was only on my second or third reading, for instance, that I realized that the title sequence is called Museum for Disappearing Sounds rather than Museum of Disappearing Sounds – a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. The poems build on each other, subtly insinuating themselves into your consciousness, creating dreamlike vistas that move beyond conventional language and the real world. There is a lot to like in this collection. I very much look forward to reading Skoulding’s next book.