Heather Phillipson’s debut collection has been extremely well received, and was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. It is an immediately arresting collection, wherein the poetry crackles with a strange electricity.
The volume’s conceit is that it melds high-intellectual thought with domestica, all run through with an erotic undercurrent. This is certainly an intoxicating notion, but the actuality of the collection is less than the sum of its parts. The poetry treads a strange line between Larkin-esque accessibility and surreal imagery:
In the washing machine’s drum is an odd regatta.
Many days turn into knots of hosiery
at the STOP of a rapid spin cycle.
This is the opening of “An Encounter in the New Language”, where domestic objects provide extended metaphors for lived experience. The difficulty here is that nothing particularly new seems to happen. The language is resolutely domestic but is neither alienating nor inviting – rather, it seems largely indifferent. “Many days turn into knots of hosiery” is a curious line – does each day turn into a knot, is the knot comprised of many days – and this interpretative resistance is compounded by the capitalized “STOP” in the next line. Does the poetic voice mean the cessation of the rapid spin cycle? Or is the spin cycle in itself a sort of end-point, offering a final presentation of the way things are? In this poem at least, the images are insufficiently interesting to warrant the grammatical warping that seems to go on.
From these domestic images, streams of consciousness emerge and loop over the page in increasingly intellectual phrasing. One poem in particular, “You’re an architect and I want to Make Dinner for You” exemplifies these shifts:
My bedsit is modest, my world is changing – seated
opposite you and your 0.2 fineliner, it includes all possible
universes. The pastry is homemade. We dream in multiple
lines are trellises, non-Euclidean geometries –
see, you say, how the shortcrust let us see beyond it.
The constant juxtaposition between the intellectual and the ordinary, the domestic and the mathematical, in this case, attempts at a post-modernist rendition of Woolf. But rather than the liquid flow of human thought which can, of course, oscillate between registers and levels of thought effortlessly – here, there – is a sort of binary switching. The result feels artificial, as if the poet is aiming at a depth that is not created through alternating registers. The theoretical apparatus that underlie this strategy is clear: a fusing of the domestic and the high intellectual (Phillipson is invested heavily in contemporary theory), demonstrating female intellectual life, often under-represented in poetry, and certainly under-recognized.
Additionally, Phillipson’s approach offers a simultaneous performance and critique of both confessional poetry and contemporary theory. The difficulty, however, is that neither is attempted with sufficient earnestness to allow either of them to shine. Whilst post-modern irony and resistance to single levels of meaning is important for the future of artist representation, it still requires concentration and precision to execute well.
Phillipson, an artist-writer, certainly seems to err on the side of “art-writing”, a practice informed by a very different set of aesthetics, theories and canons than traditional poetry. Certainly, poetry requires a shake-up – much excellent work is happening in innovative, visual, avant-garde poetry. Phillipson’s version, however, seems rather less convincing, and substitutes any attempts at sincerity or faith in communication for slippage, irony and tonal disjunct. This is interesting, certainly, but it leads to a rather cold, disposable-feeling poetry.