Material Poetries was a public conversation between Simone Fattal and Maggie O’Sullivan that took place in January 2022. Fattal is a sculptor and O’Sullivan a poet, but neither practice can be contained by simple labels. In conversation, they found common ground in ghosts, traces and echoes, despite working with very different base materials.
In the creases of Simone Fattal’s clay forms, liturgies of the past sing in silence. That silence fills their room of display with the layered voices of absence and the absent. In the clod, landscapes are created between her fingertips. Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetry is a tongue. Each page fills my mouth with texture. Every time my eyes loop around her writing, a small whisper trickles down my eustachian tube.
Their public conversation cracks open a space where dialogue and material merge. It brims with discussion of coarse texture, and seems to draw out their shared impulse for making: desire. Desire is defined as a strong feeling of wanting to have something, or wishing for something to happen. It cannot be measured by statistics or reduced to a fact. It cannot be historicised or judged to be true or false. If the historian cannot measure desire, perhaps we have to shift to our trust, recall it, back to the body. Trust the hand, the skin, the blanket of nervous tissue that encases this fossil.
Fattal speaks about her interest in heroes of the ancient past and how her relationship with clay came about. In the studio, clay talks to her and resists her hands. The strata of the clay contains the very ashes of memories, flattened bones and gristle, seeds and faecal matter, which over time have formed a porous substance which covers the deeper, spinning ores. She tells us her desire is to be with the clay because in the cold, dead cheeks of its material there already lies a multitude of worlds. She wants to listen to those voices and simultaneously stay tuned to clay’s ability to die, wither and crumble at any minute.
I am watching this discussion in my studio and I notice that my hand forms the shape of a crescent. My fingers could be the head of a snake, ready to rupture through the clay next to me, this excrement of time. I scrape through the terracotta belly, leaving puncture marks; the clay itself collects over my fingers like thimbles, its dirt pressed into my skin. I start to form a vessel but it buckles under its own weight, leaving a sag at its centre point. Somehow it manages to hold itself up, despite its own desire to collapse. Fattal says that clay shares the fragility of life and death. That might be true – clay is friable, relentless and wet.
This makes me think back to the idea of the body as a fossil. In conversations I have been having with the archaeologist Laurent Olivier, he tells me that our memories are sedimentary. They exist in a similar way to the strata of the earth, compounded and stacked like sedimentary layers. In his 2011 book The Dark Abyss of Time, Olivier writes that ‘the present is already so saturated with the past that the present hardly has a place of its own’. I think about how our bodies are also saturated with the past. The genetics which have formed my face, organs and hair pattern are made up of thousands of past people. Their sedimentary presence works silently to keep this body functioning.
Fattal and O’Sullivan both find their purpose in the search for silence. Through their chosen vessels (sculpture and poetry), they rummage to unearth the unwritten, the unformed or waiting-to-be-formed, which surrounds stillness. They both search for the stillness that surrounds things, the kind we do not yet know how to speak of, asking ‘What is the texture of silence?’.
I look at my surroundings as I write. Everything around me has its own hum. Even when I am asleep, my body is working. Jostling, creaking and swilling. I am six months late in writing this, and in the brief moments of stillness I have had, the moon has been my companion. Astronomer Nick Lister spoke to me about how we are so caught up in the noise of the built environment that we never take the time to look at the stars and their vast filigree in the sky. I go outside and look through the grey smoke of the city sky. The moon is a milky marble, an open eye looking down. As my own body gurgles into the night, in its ancestral network, I think about how the texture of the moon is the only thing that holds silence.
I have been talking with my friend Priya Jay about material memory and its longer relationship to the environment or what passes as ‘nature’. We speak about the longing of the body to collapse into the earth, to reunite with the dirt, that has defined humans’ experience of the environment through the ages. In her text ‘These Bones’, accompanying Jesse Darling’s show Enclosures at Camden Arts Centre (May – June 2022), she writes,
Subvocalization is the micromovement of our speech organs reciting our inner monologue. How far inside and under does this inside-under voice go? If I really listened to it, my marrow could be a polyglot like clay slip, swirling with an ancient thrum. Lying there, I strain to hear that sedimented language. There is a tremor that passes through each of my diaphragms: from base of throat to roof of belly down to pelvic floor, making my legs chack. The movement is coming from some internal edge, just beyond the margin of control and sense.
I think about a text by archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis describing how western modernity is haunted by the bodily senses. He claims the colonial imagination redefined the body, forcing it to become untuned from the long, intricate rapport built up between people and the landscape they inhabit. The five modalities of sense we know about have been forcefully regulated by western attitudes since late antiquity, and over time these senses have become a stiff, paralysed muscle. Hamilakis writes that the ‘spectre of animality’ surfaces time and again. There is a fear, he says, that if we rely too much on the modalities of scent, touch and taste, our humanity as we know it will be jeopardised, that a return to these would make us inferior, make us animal, make us ancestral.
Hamilakis’ description of our colonised sensorium makes me think about O’Sullivan’s take on the formulation and reception of language. Some pages in her books of poetry feature no words, just letters and sounds that score the guttural tone of pre-speech. These reverberations act as studies for silence. O’Sullivan worries that we do not listen anymore because we are so inundated with noise. For her, to find silence is to allow the body to encounter what she calls the beginning of knowledge, the silent sensuousness that other animals are still comfortably attuned to.
O’Sullivan has rediscovered an appreciation of the sensory through her daily practice of walking. She describes herself as an animal. She aspires to be the equal of all other animals. Only then, she says, can a body truly be at peace. She conjures an image of getting on hands and knees in the forest to smell the dampness of the ecosystem. I think about these textures of wet forest in my mouth and how I already know them. The tongue could be our oldest fossil inside the body, it has been around and working for so long that it already knows every texture of the world. I already know how you would feel, says the tongue to the blade of grass, to the petrified clay, to the raindrop. I think back to O’Sullivan’s writing. A deep trust in the sensory is played out in her poems, where letters seem to ache with a desire to be formed and felt in the mouth, all air and tongue, all ‘inside-under voice’.
In a school textbook about the Indigenous people of Canada, where I am writing this now, I read a quote which seems to tie together their practices. To paraphrase, in what way is looking at the prehistoric past like looking at the distant future? O’Sullivan and Fattal scavenge and excavate. They mine for ghosts and traces that allow us to reconstruct and understand our time awake. They both make things that unleash ghosts compacted in the strata of silence all around us. They invite our senses to reconnect with histories and feelings that put us at ease with being a body, a body capable of enjoying the pull of desire to be back in the dirt.
This is a creative response to the ‘Material Poetries’ in-conversation event with Simone Fattal and Maggie O’Sullivan on 19 January 2022, part of the Sculpture & Poetry programme hosted by the Henry Moore Institute in partnership with the University of Leeds and Corridor8. Recordings and related material can be found here.
Emii Alrai is an artist based in Leeds.