Common ground

Heretic, John Phillips (160pp 20.00, Longhouse/)
Identity Papers, Ian Seed (89pp, Shearsman)

The first thing to be said about this new collection from John Philips is how beautifully produced it is. The cover artwork is a collage by the author, in this case in colour, and there are further such 'illustrations' throughout the collection, in b/w, often of religious iconography (thus the book's title) in inappropriate (or appropriate) juxtaposition with the secular and with the strange. These are well constructed, contemporary surreal images which float apart from the texts they are representing and constitute an additional 'bow' to this talented poet's output. My favourite, at the time of writing, is that of a woodland scene with two female characters in the foreground, images from a religious painting with a hint of Hollywood glamour. To the left is a 'larger than life' domestic cat, staring somewhere outside the picture space. These well-executed pieces have a painterly feel and are as much aesthetic objects as satire, they are both humorous and strange in an oddly entertaining fashion.

Phillip's poetry has both a playful and a philosophical feel. It is minimalist and puzzling, often setting up oppositions which can't be resolved and playing with notions of time and space which make your head spin. Which isn't to say that this poetry is cerebral to the point of avoiding dealing with feelings and emotions, quite the opposite, in fact, as some of the material in this collection has a much darker tone than previous work I've read by Phillips. The prefacing piece creates an expectation
of exploration, between language and the world and the relation of the human subject to both of these:

     the time
                  it takes
         to read
                 a poem
     is it

Phillips sets up a sort of dialectic between consciousness (and what we do with it) and intuition and his constant probing of language and the way it acts upon us and we on it could be said to be the 'subject' of his writing. And yet, as I've already indicated, he achieves this aim while also exploring the world of feeling, something which is not at all easy to do. You often get a sense of 'having got it' immediately after completing and struggling with one of these poems but it's an elusive game he's playing and holding on to this 'essence' for more than a lingering moment is not usually part of the outcome. His apparently logical approach to language in these questing poems is as much part of the problem as it is the solution and is written into the surface of these texts:


     The act of using words would
     make it seem there was
     a particular thing I had to say.
     It is not so. Words being more
     the thing itself I want to see
     sound how it means to be -
     whatever another might hear
     say themselves to for the same.

Some poems are clearly inspired by visual imagery yet even here there is a deep exploration of the relation between 'reality' and 'art' which is beautifully encapsulated in this short piece which refers both to Cezanne and to the experience of being in and around 'landscape', or to put it another way, to be part of the proceedings, both a part of and apart from:


     The hand painting
             the mountain
                  creates the mountain
                        we go to

I'm unsurprised from the above to discover that Phillips has an interest in John Berger, as in 'Blessing', which is dedicated to the painter and writer on art and politics.

He has a way of making the ordinary and everyday event generalised in the sense of being an 'everyman or woman' experience and by doing so, creates something which is philosophical rather than epic, timeless as well as determined by time and space. There's certainly a melancholy underpinning to these minimalist pieces which are 'essentially' to do with the human subject making sense of his or her life in relation the world and other people, but they are never depressing or cold.

I could say a lot more about these poems as I haven't explored the range of Phillips' writing in any depth (many pieces are love poems, for example) and there is some dazzling wordplay in several of the more 'chancy' poems which I feel are as much about display as investigation, and none the less important for that. His vocabulary is perhaps wider in this volume and more 'autobiography' creeps in to the poetry than I've noticed before but I think I'm going to leave the reader with one of the most perfect and thus satisfying puzzles in the collection. Make of it what you will:

     Future Perfect

     Here's empty of now
     so why is there
     full of then -
     as if what's to come's
     already a memory -

     so late
     it arrived early.

Terrific poems which I hope you'll enjoy reading.

Ian Seed's prose poems are neatly composed, puzzling and entertaining yet often with a hint of menace. Seed has a way of combining a vague suggestiveness with the clarity of a dream quickly remembered and there's a hovering sense of dejavu about these pieces, which adds to a sense of bewilderment and of being lost in a potentially hostile environment, which hints at European cinema. That said there is humour and absurdity within these mini-narratives, often due to a perplexing twisting of time and space, which leaves your head in a spin, unable at the same time to be anything but admiring of the precision and exactness of these minimalist masterpieces. If you want a visual analogy, try imagining Escher with a backdrop of De Chirico.

Seed has also proven to be a canny writer of the last line, a talent which often reconfigures the preceding lines, and forces you to rethink everything you've just read. Not that you'll necessarily come to a satisfying conclusion but these pieces are satisfying, nonetheless, and are utterly addictive.

Some of these prose poems also have a contemporary feel, in the sense that the alienation and a sense of 'lostness' is very appropriate to our times, due to mass migration and displacement caused by warfare. This 'political engagement' is not something I've been aware of in Seed's previous work although there's an often-sinister backdrop in his cameos which could be interpreted as commentary. It's of the Kafka variety though, where answers are not forthcoming and where the state of 'placelessness' has an existential feel which is generalised rather than specific. And of course, there is the humour, which adds another level to the addiction and which tempers the sense of anxiety induced when reading these poems:


     I had been out of work for some time. One morning a card was
     pushed  under my door. On it was written: 'Africa re-emerging.
     Jobs available. Good money.' I gave them a call.
              Successful   applicants  were  invited to  an   introductory
     luncheon. The head  hunter sat at  the end of a long table. I was
     surprised at how smartly  everyone was dressed. Was it just me
     who  couldn't  afford a suit? But  the head  hunter  took  off his
     jacket and  hung it on the back of his chair. Soon everyone else
     did the same.
          When it was time to  stand up and give  his speech, the head
     hunter spoke of the virtues of hard work, of not eating too much
     at a  luncheon, and of  always  having a smile  on our  faces.  He
     began  complaining  in a  half-jokey sort of  way  about  his new
     secretary, who, he said, was sulky and sloppy. We all smiled.
          The  secretary,  who  was  next to  me,  shoved  me  with  her
     elbow. She wanted me to pass her some left-over meat. I wanted 
     to be unemployed again.

You could spend hours analysing the above poem and teasing out the various subtexts and narratives suggested in its minimal clues. You could even turn it into a longer narrative of 'your own' though I recommend reading these pieces through quickly before going back to savour the individual poems and admiring the mix of menace and absurdity which Seed conjures up. He's a cracking writer and fast becoming one of my favourites on the 'British poetry scene', though his work has a distinctly European feeling which is very 'other'. Oh, and I enjoyed the appropriate cover artwork which also manages to convey in minimal suggestiveness a sense of threat in four simple black marks.

     Steve Spence. 2016