nature sounds without nature sounds by Maria Sledmere, reviewed by Bethany Mitchell

Maria Sledmere – nature sounds without nature sounds

nature sounds without nature sounds, by Maria Sledmere. Published by Sad Press, 2019. Available for purchase here.

Instantly, Maria Sledmere’s dream-like register captivates. In the first poem of nature sounds without nature sounds (Sad Press, 2019), images flicker and twist, warping like shapes in a kaleidoscope: ‘all copper and candied fingers / The lemon-coloured wilderness’. Dreams themselves appear in ‘B minor’, and in the Forward Prize Highly Commended poem ‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’, which draws the image of a ‘[d]ream where my mother / reapplies lipstick in the restaurant mirror / and my life is the tiniest violet smudge at the edge.’ Thresholds between the abstract and the concrete – of soft edges, and the liminal spaces of ‘silhouette girls’, ‘abandoned houses’ and ‘other shadows’ – move the reader in and out of such various, pulsating modes of being.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that it is not just the in-between spaces of dreams and shadows that occupy Sledmere, but equally the glitchy spaces that we – as ‘human / and more’ (‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’) – inhabit in the everyday experiences of fractured and fractal existence. In this poem and elsewhere, interactions unfold between ‘kin’, bringing to mind Donna Haraway’s insistence of a symbiotic, multi-species world. These are interactions between the material and non-material; between the natural and the man-made, and always without clear distinctions.

‘Rabbit by Proxy’ is one such interactional space. Here ‘the voice / anointed with chrisms of land and sea’ – a coalescence of the human voice and the elemental – meets images of listening attentively to subterranean sounds: ‘by order of burrow / and terminal echo’ and ‘pressing soft ears to the soil’. In ‘Solaris’, Sledmere considers ‘[t]he way you make ash / out of language’ and ‘[t]he way you make ash / into language’; words evanesce before they can touch reality, and yet leave material traces and ‘aesthetic residues’ (‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’). These lines echo one another, and it is in the many echoes between sounds throughout the poems that enable their liminal spaces to be felt. Sledmere finds and plays with unexpected rhymes, such as those between ‘expiry dates’ and ‘webpage’ in ‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’, or between ‘anti-matter within the strobe’ and ‘I love soda’ in ‘Oculus Riff’. The spaces between and within these echo images lie just outside of reach, just beyond experience; accessing them is as improbable and provocative as ‘reaching for skylines’ (‘Evie’).

In ‘Insomnia Song’, too, we see the transitionary ‘shadow’ and ‘echo’. Insomnia here, and throughout the collection, seems to be a symptom of the ‘pixel ache’ of a hyper-technological age. Sledmere’s poems unfold through webpages, Pokémon and Spotify as much as ‘vitamin weather’ (‘Subtractive Classics Vol. 7’) and the ‘tweest foliage’ (‘Solaris’) of conventional nature writing. At play here is the dissonance between the experience of interacting with the world and attempting to capture the experience with technology. ‘Solaris’ ends with a sense of being out of touch with and forgetful of the world: ‘I keep asking my phone / to remember the good things’.

Yet technology in the collection is so much a part of the world that it is inescapable and becomes entangled with day-to-day experience and interaction. The sestina ‘Fractal’ accumulates ‘click / after click’, and the recurrent clicks across the collection evoke the sonic and sensory experience of keyboards, cameras, and other technological devices such as mobile phone and radios. Even the way the lyric voice thinks about individual identity is realised through the ‘iconic click’ (‘Clearing’) of technology: in ‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’, the individual self is ‘a disc I can’t compact’. The ‘coded emulsion’ of connections between human and non-human are as enduring as the ‘kodachrome’ of ‘Oculus Riff’. nature sounds bodies forth the ways that technology – with all of its clicks and glitches – constitutes and mediates experience of the everyday environment.

The sensations of insomnia and glitch seem equally to be symptomatic of solastalgia, the experience of unease or distress associated with alarming environmental change. ‘Subtractive Classics Vol. 7’, like many other poems in the collection, displays concern for a world which continues despite global distress. There is an existential stress caused by the way ‘[t]he world just turns, as if it forgot / its evil’, the pain of which can be – naively – forgotten in the midst of ‘a single sunset sip’. The poem also raises the ‘question of us’. Even in an injured world, ‘we exist still’. But who are we? What are we doing? ‘Melancholic’ takes this distress even further: ‘No one will miss / us’, leaving ‘disaster without release’. However, the use of pronouns shifts throughout the collection and even within individual poems, destabilising the grounds of the ‘question of us’. The lyric voice(s) inhabit various views and scales – from ‘our tiny voices like plaques in the gallery’ in ‘Fractal’, to ‘a balance / I exact as gravity’ in ‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’. Experience manifests through the hallucinatory distortions of being ‘inside a planet, the one that’s inside you’.

Filtered through the shifting lyric subject, nature sounds’ attention to everyday encounters and unexpected sensations challenges prevailing discourse of environmental distress and loss. The collection is saturated with aesthetic pleasure across natural objects, art and music, as in the delight of experiencing the ‘split womb of a geode’ (‘B minor’), ‘Mondrian hallways’ (‘Saucers of Mercury’), and the making and sharing of new mediations: ‘our slick new remix made the radio’ (‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’). There is joy in sensory experience, the various tastes and textures of the world: ‘[h]oneycomb crunched / in the back of my mouth like a birthday’. In such ‘lavish’ sensations are stimulating connections we make with kin, breathing collectively through ‘stargaze phone calls’ (‘Lament’).

The title of Sledmere’s collection – nature sounds without nature sounds – reminds us that what we think of as the environment is more than wilderness alone. It is ‘the patio outside the gallery’ in ‘Fractal’, ‘the walls of Pizza Hut’ in ‘Oculus Riff’, and the ‘shimmer from the screen’ of ‘Melancholic’; the environment is ‘[h]ere on the pavement’ (‘Solaris’) as much as in ‘the smell of the bluebells’ and ‘the trivial starlings’ (‘Ariosos for Lavish Matter’). In working through solastalgia in sonic and linguistic play, Sledmere’s mesmerising poems encourage recognition of and response to the ‘lavish matter’ of existing in a complex multi-species, multi-faceted world at risk.

Bethany Mitchell is a mature student of the University of Nottingham’s English with Creative Writing degree programme. She recently co-produced and co-edited the zine VOICES in association with Nottingham Poetry Exchange, and her poems have been published in locally produced pamphlets such as lower ground 18 and (w)hole.

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