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An Artist of the Floating World

In his collection of essays Music at Night, Aldous Huxley famously remarked that "after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music". The idea is by no means a new one: where words fall short, music can often seem uniquely placed to articulate our subtlest moods, thoughts and emotions. Yet few can have explored this concept, or its wider complexities, with the delicacy and originality of thought that Katharine Towers achieves in this ambitious, powerful and memorable debut, longlisted for the Guardian first book award.

In their deft harnessing of the music intrinsic to language – that which fuels poetry's thrilling confusion of sense with sound – Towers's poems are akin to those moments of quiet clarity amid the bustle and blur of daily life. The book's opening poem, "Amber", is a terse vignette that sets the tone with an elegant metaphor: figured as a frail "thought" and, by extension, a stay against confusion, the resin's safeguarding qualities make it a talisman "to hold against the slipshod years".

The Floating Man contains many such "flies in amber". On "Camusdarach Beach", a seal raises its "orphan eyes" to two lovers, "sensing our lives on the turn", while in "Trust", a memory of the poet's young daughter swimming in the sea is conjured from the complex, maternal emotions with which it is tangled. Even half-forgotten words are made strangely tangible in "Found": "old stones we've wintered in the earth / to learn the darkness underneath".

Yet there is nothing showy about these poems. Succinct and unassuming, they rarely draw on the full orchestra of effects at the poet's disposal, instead favouring subtle, single notes. "The Dread", for example, is an unsentimental view of arctic terns, birds that "have no weight but heart-weight", "no thinking, but know the curve and swing / of the earth". Through gentle assonance, the poem develops a studied coolness, anticipating the sudden silence – known as the Dread – before the birds jointly take flight: "as if / someone quietly said: come, follow me." That calmness, the poem suggests, is almost a shadowy memory in the terns' collective mind; a moment's eerie stillness that jolts them again into restlessness. The poem succeeds in expressing this notion and its human resonance, while avoiding the na├»ve anthropomorphism that would undermine such observations. It's a neat trick which Towers pulls off elsewhere, most notably in "Haunts", a concise unpicking of the fragile divide between the natural and the human worlds:

We can walk into woods and find
we are suddenly mortal.
The air has kept still for seasons
and we've no cause to speak

or to question this adequate moment
of moths, earth, light restrained by trees.
Let us not think we hear our own feet
treading the soft ash of leaves.

Nature offers a brief reprieve from the human labyrinth; opportunity to escape a world where everything appears in the guise of its value or function. But even if we stop questioning such "adequate" moments in order to pursue a broader understanding, we soon return to centring the scene on ourselves, however ghostly a presence we might be. How can we help but hear, in the sly sibilance of that final line, "our own feet / treading the soft ash of leaves"?

The book's presiding spirit – "The Floating Man" of the title poem – offers an answer of sorts. Enacting a thought experiment devised by the Persian polymath Ibn-Sina, an attempt to prove the independence of the soul from the physical body, our narrator imagines himself suspended, isolated from all sensory experience, "for as long as it takes to forget the sweating desert / and the sifting streets of Hamadan." In doing so, he approaches a kind of objectivity, blurring the false distinctions we observe: "Shall I say I am a man or a thought, / or a man thinking about deserts and cities?"

This expansive attention to detail, the ability to look beyond one's own narrow perspective, enriches Towers's writing and her search for emotional truths. Some of these poems are sensitive as a cardiograph to the moments they chart: "She's there on a branch: don't startle her" warns the poet in "Nightbird". Similarly, while waiting to hear their "late evening / call to prayer" in "In the Oak Woods", the narrator is "quiet for fear the owls might startle / and fly from their rooms".

The best poems in The Floating Man, however, are those which express human relationships in terms of music and vice versa, augmenting our understanding of both. "The Art of Fugue" opens with the hopefulness inherent to the form: a contrapuntal composition of conversing "voices" which the poem imbues with human characteristics; "solemn instruments, which yawn / and clamber to their feet" and "suppose they feel the same". Yet this simplicity, "the clean white sail of a tune making everything good", isn't quite as it seems: the desire to bring things to a close, each instrument "using their own words", is never far away. In love as in music, harmony is unstable, fleeting, and often appears as artifice: by the end of "Counterpoint", the poem's warring couple settle for a truce; "you still banging away at the deep end, / me somewhere up in the gods, trying the high notes".

It's these intelligent and honest insights, always intent on offering a fresh outlook, that lend Towers's quiet poems their tenacity; testament to her inclination, as with "The Language Spider" in one poem, "to favour stealth / over the grand gesture".

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 11 September 2010