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Heather Phillipson: Faber New Poets 3
Faber and Faber, 5.00

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A recent letter to the Cambridge Literary Review referred to "the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential" as the poetic standard which Cambridge School poets are keen to move beyond. The writer could have been (but almost assuredly wasn't) making a jab at Heather Phillipson specifically, whose work in this debut pamphlet is largely 'interior', both in the sense that it traces patterns of thought and reflection and that much of it is set indoors - in kitchens, bedsits, bathrooms and studies. But while there is a winning simplicity in Phillipson's writing ("How devastating you looked today across Soho Square/in your pink cashmere sweater,/your man bag over your left shoulder"") she proves that as far as domesticated interiority goes, there's more to it than symbolism.

Phillipson's other notable strength is the humorously elaborate line - or rather, to find beauty in what's sonically and visually awkward.

One feature that's especially striking is how little action there is. Phillipson slows time down to the extent that a poem might take place in a mere moment; all its questing energy is taken up in speculation, observation and supposition - the human brain going at the speed of light. In 'Practicing a Celtic Language as Distraction from a Bad Haircut', all the physical movement is in the first three lines:

"As if it might change anything,
you cite Welsh road signs to my newly-barbered ears
in your previously-owned car while I roll up the window."

The rest of the poem, complete with Celtic interjections, is a heady mixture of personal essay, memoir and lamentation, ending with the conclusion: "My new look is accidental". 'Ablutions' is more ambiguous; Phillipson is taking a bath and her stream of consciousness could be taking place over a second or an hour. All we know for sure is that during the poem "I synchronise my loofah./My big toe turns the hot tap." Elsewhere, she is on a transatlantic flight, fantasising about an unlikely engagement with the man seated next to her, or unscrewing the lid of a jar of nuts while imagining adventures with a rhyming dictionary.

The first piece in the book, 'German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London', adds a layer of supple irony to the effect. As made apparent by the title, it's essentially a poem about the dullness of 'thinking' when weighed against the visceral fulfilment of 'doing'. Lifetimes' worth of intellectual booty seem tiresome when weighed against even the smallest nonconformist act:

"... I''d rather be outside, naked, than learned -
rather lap the tarmac escarpment of Archway Roundabout
wearing only a rucksack. It might come in useful.
I can't take any more of Heidegger's
Dasein-diction ..."

But the narrator in this poem is only thinking about 'doing', and it's the thinking she takes pleasure in. The activity remains intellectual, the escapade a dream. In fact, this internal world is so all-consuming, Phillipson implies, that it actually threatens to replace action. See this momentary absent-mindedness in 'You're an Architect and I Want to Make Dinner for You':

"... Yes,
our windows will be curvilinear. I pour the cream,
neatly fold your drawing (twice), nearly forget to eat."

Phillipson's other notable strength, of course, is the humorously elaborate phrase - or rather, to find beauty in what's sonically and visually awkward. Amid the attention-grabbing clarity of lines like "I am deranged with sugar", there are an abundance of difficult words and terms - 'epistemology', 'methodological', 'Structuralist', 'non-Euclidean' and 'fricatives', to name a few. They are always dispensed wryly and somewhat self-mockingly, one of the features of a voice that mimics the human tendency to go let wild thoughts run free, making off with anything they can get their hands on. After all, no one need know where your mind's been.


dr f writes:

"When the first three poems in a book comprising only of 16 (so almost a fifth) feature female nudity, one wonders how cynical the publisher. If Faber weren't so in love with their no-effort minamilist cover designs, we could surely have expected to see Phillipson in full colour, 'drop my robe on the communal stairs' perhaps - one of those holographic stereograms that used to come with packets of cereal - or experience first hand 'the way foam is distracted from water/and clings all over my contours.' That would certainly be distracting. For the girls, it's worth noting there are a number of devilish-sounding men discussed in the book as well."