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Steve Spence

"The Shape of Faith" by John Philips. pub. Shearsman. 87pp.

There’s always a puzzling element to John Phillips’ poetry and it’s to do with the struggle between language and ‘the world’. Some poets choose to embrace this condition more openly and it becomes, in a sense, the subject of the writing. John is one such poet, I’d say, and yet he largely avoids the potential pitfalls of this self-conscious aspect by a combination of humour – some of these poems are very funny – and of a serious investigation into ‘meaning’ which nevertheless incorporates a sense of the absurdity at the centre of things.

Some of the above-mentioned humour comes from the obsessive nature of ‘the quest’ and this collection of poems includes some of Phillips’ most obsessive poetry to date, at least so far as I’m aware. Even the relatively long poem ‘Ways’, which embraces a more open-field poetic than is usual in Phillips’ work, has a minimalist feel to it and incorporates a series of encapsulations which are often puzzling even on a re-reading when you think for a second that ‘you’ve got it’ then realise the whole caboodle has disappeared into the air:

          no one watching knew
          the whole show
                              was made up from
          those made
                    to watch it.

It’s the potential enormity of the aphorism that does it, allied to a sparse language which avoids description and detail and is verging on the abstract. Then again, from the same poem we get this:


Which is much easier to take in and combines the philosophical/profound with the throwaway and obvious.

‘Theory of Composition’ is a wonderfully compact narrative which has a mythic/theological undertone and hints towards the book’s title in its questing which includes both a sense of mystery, the intangible, and a sceptical intelligence which undermines the apparent thrust. Using ‘the poem’ as the subject of the myth-building – ‘There is a rumour this poem never existed’ – aids its surface humour while putting the text at the centre of everything and we’re back to our tangled relationship between words and meaning which is crucial to Phillips’ entire oeuvre. ‘A few agree that at one time the poem did exist, but they insist / it was never written down.’ This reminds me to a degree of Ian Seed’s puzzling non-narratives though Phillips takes the matter further by making the poem, ‘the thing itself’, its own subject and this both adds to the comedy of the piece while advancing the philosophical enquiry at the same time. Phillips does this without sounding remotely arch or pretentious by viewing the poem as a game, a ludic exploration which is multi-faceted and intriguing. The final sentence mixes the enigmatic with the materialistic in the sense that in the end ‘it’s all a play with words’ yet there remains a sense of mystery which confounds such a one-dimensional reading. Contradiction and difficulty may be at the heart of these riddling poems but they are satisfying to read and think about and while defying any notion of ‘communication’ in an obvious one-dimensional sense they nevertheless convey something other than a sense of ‘hopeless isolation’ or at least appear to:

     Those who believe a poem can cast a shadow, or under the
     correct circumstances, emit a faint light, may regard this note
     as proof of whatever notion they seek to defend.

     The poem ‘Paradise’ uses the theological language, suggested by the book’s title, to more directly address the limits of what we can either say or know yet despite the cultural accretions around the words and their context, or perhaps because of these, the meaning remains elusive, hinted at, teased out despite an apparent clarity. We may be able to go beyond language but any attempt to elucidate this idea seems to require language (or a system of signs) in order to function at all:


     Because words reveal
     the separation

     of what is
     from what is said to be:

     in Paradise
     language would be a sin.

There are poems here which you could say are more ‘of the world’ in terms of subject matter and of including other people in the texts (John’s daughter, for example, at one point) which add to the humanity and, at times, pathos, of the pieces – they are not simply a matter of cerebral game-playing though that is certainly an aspect of the work – yet the minimalist language, sparse and without waste, is central to his writing. I also find them very satisfying to read and while I wouldn’t want to argue strongly for a therapeutic aspect to reading and writing poetry I’ve certainly enjoyed the process of commenting on John Phillips’ material and look forward to seeing more in due course.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017