Ruby Robinson’s debut collection, Every Little Sound (Pavilion Press, 2016) has received critical acclaim, shortlisted for both the Felix Dennis Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize. The book’s title is indicative of her approach; scrupulously attentive and especially interested in the aural. She writes from personal experience, but the perspective we are afforded is so close as to give intimate access without full context; as if we looked through a microscope or overheard a private conversation. The myopic nature of her poems means that they become simultaneously less and more than confessions.
Born in Manchester in 1985, Robinson has lived in South Yorkshire for most of her life. She studied English at the University of East Anglia before focussing on her own writing with an MA at Sheffield Hallam, where she won the Ictus Prize. Robinson is intensely interested in interpersonal relationships; how we relate to one another, how this affects our social and emotional lives; in an interview for the University of Liverpool she explains: 'I feel that engaging with new scientific knowledge on a fundamental, human, creative level can bring a deeper understanding of and engagement with important discoveries.' This focus has, she says, been 'helpful in her own recovery from childhood trauma, in understanding intergenerational cycles of interpersonal abuse, neglect, loss and separation.'
Every Little Sound is, as the title suggests, full of sounds and voices. In 'Hush', the aural imagery is achingly familiar ('School / yard'. 'Hushed auditorium') but dislocated by short sentences and juxtapositions, becoming 'lumps of sound' left for 'some other child / to find.' This surreal amplification connects to the theory of 'Internal Gain', glossed in an epigraph by David Baguley as 'an internal volume control which helps us amplify and focus upon quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration.' In Robinson's hands, this poem becomes a mode of exploring difficult subject matter in an elliptical manner.
A long central poem, 'Apology', is both a direct address and a meditation on the power and responsibility of womanhood. Here the apology is both the refrain 'I'm sorry' which gives the poem its form and, in the archaic sense, a defence. In this heady, fast-paced poem the high register of rhetoric is married with very precise detail:
despite a genuine fear of sentimentality and pseudo-unhappiness,
struggling under the weight of an A1 poster on complex trauma
and a pair of Sennheiser headphones to lock me in.
Robinson often gives us the brand rather than the generic name, a sort of 'scientific urge for exactness'. This is typical of her writing which offers us specific objects instead of allusions, actions instead of narratives. The effect is simultaneously intimate and distancing; we are drawn in so close that we can hardly see.
In 'Story', a long prose poem, the narrator does not give us a handle on the scene, either in terms of sense or space: 'Along from there, and a path next to a pond', The woman beneath the cow'. The word 'something' recurs throughout and it is impossible to accurately count the huge cast of men, women and various animals. Yet, we are allowed sudden intimate glimpses into the characters' thoughts:
and disappear with laughing. He was thankful for this. In that
moment he knew that the colour green was the answer to the
question that had snagged in his head since he was a small child.
'Longbefore' contrasts storybook cadences with a tale of childhood abuse: 'Longbefore, she'd been a child in a garage, potting on, picking cherry tomatoes, pickling, sucking him off.' Sexual violence is one of several darker themes in this collection, but this is balanced with a sense of restorative love and sensual joy. Concentration on the smaller things also offers hope for healing: 'This Night' illustrates the invigorating power of 'taking the time / to hear', to see, to notice and to act carefully. 'Winter' continues the idea of care, rest, withdrawal, of hibernation as a period of dormancy that allows for recovery:
In 'My Mother' a park is the setting for a meeting. Rather than a full reunion it contains just the merest glimpse of shared feeling, of two minds in momentary tandem:
of Butterworth's at the bikes: they were beautiful
all of them. Gorgeous, she said …
Robinson looks close enough to find the angels on the pinhead – but that does not mean she ignores the devil in the detail. In 'Unlocatable' she applies the meticulous scalpel of science to herself:
I dismembered myself, dissembled
an entire vocabulary and constellations
of thoughts, disembowelled my body,
placed my head on a shelf,
picked through everything else
with a very thin blade…
But the act of dissection only tells one type of truth. Language is 'dissembled' and parts are left out. The protagonist is 'unlocatable' recalling Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle – another important idea in this book, where observation and description are as unreliable as they are essential. The importance and usefulness of uncertainty is also present in the final poem, 'To My Family':
I learned at nine months, the world
is neither to blame nor to be trusted
This chimes as much with Keats' 'negative capability' as it does with notions of particle physics. Robinson is a poet who is equally sceptical and hopeful, exacting and understanding. The limitations and flaws of knowledge and art are accepted, but this does not mean the search for truth, or the attempt to tell it, stops. Every Little Sound is a candid and elusive book, combining the personal and the scientific to create compelling and curious composites. Robinson's great skill is to maintain her music throughout this impossible juggling act. This is a poet who is honest but tricksy, assured but determinedly unsure.
Every Little Sound. Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2016
Snap. Templar Poetry, Matlock, 2010
Poetic Republic: Poems to Talk About. Ed. Peter Hartey. Poetic Republic, Stockport, 2013
Millstone Grit. Eds. Rosemary Badcoe, Noel Williams and Carolyn Waudby. Antiphon Press, Sheffield, 2016.
The Forward Book of Poetry 2017. Faber, London, 2016
Every Little Sound's website, including reviews
Robinson's profile on the T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist
Robinson's interview for the Forward Arts Foundation
Robinson's interview for the Literature and Science Hub at the University of Liverpool.
Robinson's interview with Poetry Spotlight