Whatever criteria you have for judging what you are reading surely begins with a ‘gut’ sensation. Your own criteria can only ever be something that you use to rationalise your own ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ of something your internal reaction mechanism has already decided upon. The words – the criteria – come later. They can only ever be in hindsight. Here is my attempt to capture – in hindsight – how vital a piece of work ‘Dark Hollow Dark’ by Richard Skelton is.
When I am reading something that I think is particularly good I always get the same sensation: I feel that the ‘back’ of the poem has fallen away and I am being allowed through the poem to something else. Somewhere else. The construction of a poem is to make a conduit. I was at a book festival recently in which an established poet made an impassioned plea for the end of confessional poetry; I wouldn’t echo their words, but I like to think that the poet isn’t getting in the way of the poem. One of Skelton’s many skills is to construct a situation in which the reader is directly caught, in ‘Dark Hollow Dark’: caught up in the struggle with language, the struggle for control of language, and the sensation of inhabiting a language that a great deal many others who have passed and gone still inhabit. Who is writing me, as I write this? What codes and grammars, and what sound rules and graphologies, actually inhibit my own meanings and guide me to express meanings that are not where I set out? Who do I open dialogue with, when I open my mouth to speak? Could I be ‘overwritten’ as I write?
The whole book takes its point of departure from two lines of The Look Away – a book that I read in one sitting and, having finished it, I found I was standing up – such was the encircling power of the end – gripping the furniture. It is not a similar book – but it is a visceral experience, nonetheless. Language swirls – lines morph. The words on the page change their graphological appearance in repetition; in doing so, the words themselves pass back into time (like burrowing back into the book) and into other language patterns; the words uttered are sound echoes of the past. Language is moving away from us – and it is moving fast. At times the words themselves are pulled back, again through repetitions, into sound orders that are often unfamiliar. There are ‘sounds’ on the page that I don’t make in my head, naturally. The skill of this is that the reader is not lost – we are taken to the swirling point of language change. In doing this, we are reminded that our own hold (on language and) on this world, and the things we are certain of, is brief.
As these lines build up – more like waves of sound – we also get signals from different speakers, different texts. These become a charged voice that vibrates in dissonance, sometimes in harmonic change, in response to the inherent ghosts in sound and language. Or is it the other voices that change with each sounding echo? Do we change them? The way each page of poetry is divided by a page of illustration – often of letters, or the repeated bending strokes of those letters – takes you further into the flux. At the end of each section the word ‘and’ is all we are left with before the text of the next section starts; the snapping off of the coils of self-oscillating words silences the voice. Does it start again at the start of the next section? Each new canto adds another ‘I’ onto the numeral it takes as its title. If you are reading this you will know that numbered stanzas are something I am fascinated by: here there is no ‘IV’ or ‘V’; these is not a Roman system – each canto is a an addition that is not subsumed into a new formation: five is not ‘V’; it is ‘IIIII’. Your life, or your use of words, does not join with the past to make ‘V’ – you are a separate ‘I’ at the end of a line of single strokes. This, alongside the truncation of each canto means that each new canto start is ‘fresh’ in the sense that a separate thread begins – but these threads can only run in parallel to those that have gone before, and will be cut into silence all the same, having broken open into the phonemes of the past and having exhausted themselves in echo and repetition that each ‘and’ appears like a frantic breath – a prayer, even – for more.
I will try in the future to write more on the similarities between this text and the border ballads that fascinated me as a child (and still do now) and this work – but I can only say so much at once.
Yes, this is a work about place (place… time… space). Yes, this is about language. Yes, it is unsettling. Yes, this is a work that puts a sentience into the words of the past – one that is at times not friendly. These words (these words right here that you are reading) are the twisted smithing of a thousand others: they might not be happy with my uses of sound, letter and word. Yes, there is a whole meaning. But to get that, you will need to step into the space – and move through the conduit that opens. Dark Hollow Dark is an examination of presence. What is it that we ‘dwell’ in? What is the body? Whose words are these? What are the layers of knowing? And if we grapple with the things beyond words, what form would the answer come back at us in? And who would be speaking it?
You can buy the book here: https://www.corbelstonepress.com/dark-hollow-dark.