Reading Ruby Robinson’s debut collection Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press, 2016) in the early days of the EU Referendum result, my ears were still ringing with one of the Leave campaign’s key slogans: “Take back Control,” an imperative phrase masquerading as a promise of freedom, and a reminder of the power dynamics at work in language and communication. We humans are susceptible to exploitation through our own miscomprehensions and Robinson’s poems alerted me to such vulnerabilities, and to the risks we expose ourselves and others to, in the relationships we form and in the relationships imposed on us, from birth to adulthood.
The opening poem invites us inside the book by addressing us directly:
come in. I’m opening my door to you – the trap
door of a modern barn conversion with lots of little rooms.
An invitation, then, but also a warning: that welcoming gestures, and homes, can be traps; that a person’s ideas, hopes and expectations (a modern barn conversion to me conjures up images of light and space, a sense of freedom within solid walls) can lead to disappointment and can even put you in danger (the restriction, claustrophobia and messiness of lots of little rooms).
‘Home’ is a signifier of safety, care, love, nurturing, and in the opening poem there is bread, soup and spare socks on offer to prove it. But we have been allocated a silent role in this home we’ve been ushered into. Someone else has defined our identity for us (reader, listener) in the same way that a child has no choice about the circumstances of the domestic space they are born into and live their early lives in. Although there are outward signs of welcome, this is not a consensual, mutually respectful relationship – how can it be when one person is issuing another with orders (Take back control!):
Take off your shoes. Take some spare socks –
when there is no room for the other to speak so they remain silent, or when someone purports to know what another person wants or needs:
…………………………………………… – I know your own feet
offend you. I know your deepest thread, like a baked-in hair.
At what point does love become a trap? At what point does an act of caring become an act of control? The walls here don’t have eyes we’re told, indicating that this could be a place of freedom but could, equally, be a place to experience neglect or abuse. In another poem, ‘Unlocatable,’ self-harm, seemingly induced by a psychotic episode, unfolds
……while no-one was watching
(so I may or may not have existed)..
There was fire and fantastic smashing of chandeliers, sirens
and the petrified calls of wild animals.
There was dust in everyone’s eyes
although no-one was there to actually see
In ‘Listen,’ a speaker tells us
…….. I daren’t speak my mind.
The man comes. I don’t
speak my mind
although, earlier, we have been told the speaker is
Beside a sleeping child
whose womb aches. I wonder
how I know this?
We think back to lots of little rooms, to houses were doors click, where years pass, where it rained for many years and she forgot about things growing.
No man is an island wrote Donne, another slogan from the EU campaign, adopted by the Remain camp, and Robinson’s poems address the interconnectedness of people, how the consequences of our actions are often played out for generations, if not indefinitely. The poem ‘Hush’ draws on ideas from sound technology to contemplate how experiencing trauma can reverberate through time:
Get up, drop
into a well
lumps of sound
you cowl from.
some other child
These are taut, vibrant, intimate poems, structured in a such a way as to replicate the complicated manoeuvres our brains make as we try to understand human behaviour. Repeated images and associative ideas resurface across poems like memories, suppressed memories, and false memories. In this way, a gathering narrative is grippingly revealed in this tightly bound, cohesive collection.
No person is an island however much they believe they are alone. Children who experience neglect and abuse grow into adults who form relationships with others, who become parents, who have children who grow into adults who have relationships with others.
In ‘Apology’, a five page poem at the centre of the book, past and present collide as the poem’s speaker directly addresses her mother, who has experienced terrible familial abuse:
I’m sorry for resembling your relatives and captors and the man
who penetrated you…
In apologising for being born
I’m sorry I’m here
the speaker movingly acknowledges that her very existence has extenuated her mother’s mental illness which has, in turn, been triggered by previous events. Unflinchingly and insightfully, the speaker also admits
I’m sorry I had, logically, to think of my own self first / simultaneously,
‘Apology’ is an expression of extreme tenderness and humanity by a blameless person who has the compassion to truly acknowledge a wounded person’s pain, even though they have, shockingly, experienced grievous pain themselves.
The poems in Every Little Sound encompass uncertainties, unreliable communicators, narratives of confusion, and misinterpretation, while simultaneously creating a feeling of movement, growth, renewal, development and evolution. In part, Robinson achieves this through her exquisite observations of the natural world, recorded in the midst of chaotic times: new tomatoes in a greenhouse are baubles; there is a smash glassed sea; an ash tree is shown sloping its nude shoulders to the night. Overwhelmingly, these poems transmit hope and a sense of the human capacity for resurgence beyond desperate damage.
The final poem ‘To My Family’ acknowledges
we are all little gods in our own worlds,
tearing ourselves away from unbearable closeness.
Certainly, the poems in this collection show that where there are little gods there are also little subjects, vulnerable to exploitation, who will painfully struggle with issues of trust when endeavouring to form subsequent relationships. But this is also a declaration that even the most broken of us has the potential to thrive.
Every Little Sound is a strong collection and a fantastic choice by the Forward judges for the Best First Collection shortlist.
Every Little Sound by Ruby Robinson, published by Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press, has been selected for the 2016 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection Shortlist.