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Steve Spence

"more flinching"   Heather Phillipson   Periplum Poetry

Heather Phillipson’s poetry is as much influenced by visual art methods and strategies as it is by literary ones. Her writing in this collection combines a smoothness of flow with a succession of interruptions and fragmentations, a feature which she carries off with some aplomb. There is anxiety in the title, as there is in the text, but it’s an anxiety that is tempered by a dry, understated humour and by a kind of distancing from the self, as if what is happening is happening to somebody else or indeed to everywoman/man. The ‘I’ of the ‘narrative’ feels both personal and representative and the ‘shifts in consciousness’ have both a sense of absurdity, fuelled by humour, and a sort-of ‘late Cubist’ attempt at multi-perspective. There is a real concern with the layout of the text on the page, as you might expect from someone who is also a visual artist, range-right at times, some open-field layout and a dense double page patterning around half way through which consists of variants on the following:  ‘Stubbed toe. Locked door. Walked dog. Poured drink’, which becomes ‘Poured door. Stubbed dog. Walked toe.’ Etc. There are a series of photographs throughout the book, which initially appear to be diffuse and abstract but you gradually realise they are mainly slightly out of focus sections of a dog’s face. The themes of the book are mortality – the loss of a loved animal, of a late grandmother – Chopin, and bodily functions. There is the sense of a skewed diary notation which documents an individual odyssesy through the modern world, not epic, often beset by anxiety and perhaps depression, yet domestic and in that sense ‘ordinary’. We could be talking information overload or it may a plethora of opportunity and possibility, there is a degree of ambiguity here.


               You can also use your smartphone
to select an element of the universe.
Whichever element shouts
loudest from the shelves
I can’t see the ends of.
outer space! Has it ever seemed more humdrum?

Wordplay and word association are common features of this writing, often aiding the flow and forward movement of the pieces.


There are some neat short line lyrics –  ‘just getting to shops / & back / with/out panic attack’, for example and a nicely spaced page-layout which features UPPER and lower case text in an attempt perhaps to combat form with subject matter:


                    You can catch me on the
periphery of the dying
and dead scene

There’s also a playful aspect to Phillipson’s shifting of direction which feeds the ever-onrush of observation, drift and dreamy inner consciousness, a fiction of self-confession and a mode of writing which refuses to self-censor. Thus we get:


looks acceptable ‘on paper’
but then, so does shit.
What’s turning me on
suddenly, and simply, is grasses
picked from the earth’s assholes.
You didn’t see that coming
did you, the assholes
just come when the worms get digging.
I’ll bet there are some
nice craters in the field right now.

There’s a virtual reality feel to this writing, aided by everyday technology, yet it slips in and out of ‘reality’ with its mixing of advertising speak, commentaries on the act of editing and composition and a determination to get ‘carried away’ and break the rules. Despite which, there is an aesthetic quality to this writing which sings at times and yet embraces both a comic-book simplicity of approach with a sophisticated way with words.  There is death and there are sensual materials, of sound, of smell and of an evoked visual landscape. There is ‘the world out there’ with its ‘KALASHNIKOVS’ and its ‘SUICIDE VESTS’ but there is also a delight in language and with music (‘Chopin in the backcloth’) which keeps the pages turning.

I’ve come across Phillipson’s work before, mainly in anthologies and I’ve always found it to be at least as interesting as the best of the company it keeps but this is the first full collection of her material that I’ve had access to. She is from a younger generation of poets/artists who have a multi-media background and who have grown up with the internet as a constant presence. Unlike some of her peers she still seems to have links with ‘traditional poetic’ methods and aims but there’s an element of the hybrid about her work that I’m still assimilating and trying to get to grips with.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018