The title of Ruby Robinson’s poetry debut is derived from a line within its pages; the notion of paying close attention to “every little sound” appears in “Internal Gain,” a poem that traverses a gamut of sounds from “the conversation downstairs” to “echoes of planets slowly creaking.” The preface provides a definition of this central listening practice: “an internal volume control which helps us amplify and focus upon quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration.” In Robinson’s work, this threat stems from intimate relationships – particularly those between family members and lovers – with their capacity to nurture, shape and harm us.
As Robinson explores these interpersonal relationships, the work nevertheless remains outward-looking, inviting us in from the very first line: “come in. I’m opening my door to you – the trap | door of a modern barn conversion.” The lowercase first word gives the impression of stumbling across something already in motion, of an experience joining fluidly onto our own, while enjambment alerts us to a possible trap. Indeed, despite the welcome, appearances are deceptive: “there’s soup. Bread in the oven to warm. Take off your shoes,” the house is decorated with “awkward plastic chairs for interrogating guests” and the speaker’s penetrating address is unsettling: “I know your deepest thread, like a baked-in hair.” However, the suggested privacy afforded by this space (“the walls here don’t have eyes”) adds to the suspicion that we are in fact listening to a reflective inner voice, one which may prove to be both challenging and revealing, as “shadows of stags are cast like stalking giants” onto the walls.
“Interlude” uses the extended metaphor of watching a play to tune into moments too convoluted or painful to articulate that emerge from our interactions with others. During the break, as “black T-shirts reposition the world” in darkness, there is a sense of something unseen taking shape and the fidgety unease this induces: “the squeak of a shoe’s leather, a boiled sweet | rolling from one cheek to the other.” In a startling switch of pace, the speaker imagines what would happen “were the actors | to drop dead:”
and soldiers, politicians, vicars, presidents,
the actors’ mothers, sisters, brothers, the actors’ fathers to burst in,
sprint past the blocks of seats, beat the corpses, rape them, set dogs
on them – judges and juries would look on through gleaming faces
as we look on now for fifteen minutes, breathing out, breathing in
The overwhelming speed with which the flurry of familial and social figures flood in may represent an internal backlash against suppressed thought, while their actions foreground the emotional violence underpinning everyday relationships. Conversely, time elongates within this brief interlude: “years pass. Some shout their pain from a soundproof box[.]” conveying the difficulties of communicating clearly with those around us. The play resumes in the final stanza, signalled by a chime from the orchestra pit: “we see ourselves rise from the stage and play on,” suggesting how we might continue to assume damaging yet familiar behavioural and social roles. The “judges and juries” we are likened to, both watching and being watched, highlight our complicity in this process.
The quest to isolate elusive, unspoken aspects of interpersonal relationships continues in “Time,” as two lovers use a high-speed camera to capture their life together for “sixteen seconds.” Each resulting print is “identical to the last, as one heartbeat, | displaced inaudibly, | by the next.” Such efforts are similarly fruitless in “Unlocatable,” which concerns the speaker’s troubled relationship with her mother, who is “somewhere | like a drowned fish on the very end of some | fucker’s very long line.” The resentful tone stresses the mother’s thoughtless prioritising of random men, and the speaker’s frustration at being unable to reach a physically and emotionally ‘unlocatable’ mother. Depicted as a fish with “no hands to hold anyone | body encased in scales,” she is both is ill-suited to a maternal role, and vulnerable to being exploited by others. This understanding may account for the speaker’s self-harm, as if an explanation (and blame) for their discordant relationship lies within her:
I dismembered myself, disassembled
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
Dismemberment also creates a physical representation of, and the illusion of momentary escape from, the speaker’s distress. Unfortunately, the only realisation to emerge is of the harm the speaker has inflicted upon herself: “half-witted, unpicked, flaked | out.”
“Apology,” however, offers a glimpse of hope; comprised of a long sequence of short stanzas, each cascading into the next with cathartic release, the poem lists the many reasons the speaker believes she must apologise to her mother. Again, she recognises her mother’s vulnerabilities: “so many names for all your predators | and crushes and suitors. I’m sorry,” making later reference to her apparent alcohol addiction (“I’m sorry I was ill-prepared for your soiled mattress | and comatose body”) and mental illness (“I’m sorry that consensus reality had you set fire to your bed.”) The speaker’s guilt over failing to support her mother extends to her own resilience in the face of trauma: “Look at me – flaunting my own survival. Who am I? | Except the parasite that accidentally caught on | to your womb wall[.]” A crucial question emerges amongst the expressions of guilt, and shame over her supposed role in her mother’s downfall. In the absence of answers, the speaker instead finds a voice – and the words – through which to articulate herself. Reflecting upon her mother’s life, she recognises the ease with which we adopt or are forced into destructive roles in intimate relationships, replaying them years later: “the piano thunders on, | sustain pedal wired to the facial muscles of all your neglecters, | aching like hell behind their stamina and machinery.” Just as the mother in “Unlocatable” is on the end of “some fucker’s” line, they are on the end of hers, as she engages in the exhausting process of sustaining and reliving past experiences. The speaker’s response is unsympathetic and decisive: “close the piano lid. Empty the drawer. Things happen.”
This mind-set culminates in the final poem, “To My Family,” in which the speaker confidently states: “I’m just words, and you have not the tenacity | to smother me, so I’ll wait here, written, biding my time.” These liberating lines come from having at last found a space for expression following years of oppressive silence, while maintaining a safe distance from face-to-face interaction, for now.