Adventures with Words

by Peter Philpott
131pp, £9.95/$15.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD.

Print-on-demand runs, high-quality typesetting performed on the kitchen table or anywhere, and good design means that, once again, publishing has become a true cottage industry. An unstaunchable flow of poetry books is happening, and Shearsman Books is contributing to the flood. But where does this press stand, ideologically-speaking, in the poetry landscape today? Well, a year or two ago, one would have said it was 'alternative', 'out of the mainstream' etc. And this may still be true as far as the ordinary poetry reader is concerned. Not so in most of the new academia - ie. some universities, especially the younger, plus countless higher education/cutting-edge institutions like, for example, Dartington College - which is committedly post-modern. Indeed, there is an interesting poem (part 4 of 'The Wars in Heaven' section) in Philpott's book which begins with Pound and Williams then fast forwards us through Stein, Zukovsky, Olson, Spicer and O'Hara to tell us our poet 'draw(s) on them as from an inner sea'. It's just as though poetry began with Pound and Williams, thus providing a kind of foreshortened intellectual view. But that at least relieves the critic of any Leavisite attempt at measuring the quality of the work by accumulated criteria evolved from earlier traditions.

Textual Possessions
is made up of three lengthy sequences, each of which contains many parts. The range of approach destroys the possibility of a single monitoring authorial voice, for the styles are many. Take this vigorous, breathtaking piece that immediately follows on the author's credentials' section just referred to:

         Think of an ocean unbounded
         As an entire crystal eye
         Gazing at the purity of God.

         Think now of this tortuous sea margin
         Banded round into a fractal infinity
         Within each turn a fresh life bursting out
         Each interface a page
         On which I throw my accusations
         Against the Eternal Throne
         That imprisons within this narrow limit
         All the ambitions of engendering and decay.

         That one eye
                          ringed with all this field of life
         Gazes on
                    at itself and God.
                           (from 'Of the Wars in Heaven'
                               from 'An Encounter Upon the Beach at Minehead
                                    With the Prince of this World')

Then compare that with the mixture of the chiselled and the onomatopoeic of:

         & backwash
         bifocal being
         born and
         being dead
         holding &
         letting go
         the rasp
         of stones
         grinding down
         stuttering repetition
         building up

         interference patterns
         subtle stases

         like stranded rubbish

         bits of old wood, plastic, flowers
         dead creatures

Though I said I wouldn't go further back than Pound, yet here we have something like unrhymed Skeltonics that have met up with Robert Creeley.

What I take to be the earliest of the three works entitled 'In the Present Historic Tense ('Sense' in the Contents): A Serial Poem of the West'
(it is also the longest at 60 pages), the poems tend to be fairly formally-shaped free verse:

         The bus promised Hardy country
         Slow and dirty, faintly melancholy
         With the abandoned air of all public things

Also, early on, there is the credo of the aesthete simply making beauty out of words; viz:

         But love the infinite sheens of surfaces
         All you need for reflection
         Can't stop it or understand

yet, in the very next stanza:

         Meaning like water
         Doesn't go away
         But slowly returns

So that this is a questing, philosophical sort of poetry that can be very effective:

Small creatures also live in this place
         Their bodies glowing jewels that unlike us
         Are not just smelling of the decay of our flesh
         Which falls from us in strips and tatters
         Or moistened by mucus swells blindly. They
         Look at us with hatred, amazement and occasional love
         Also fear, for they know how desperate and unpredictable
         We can be when we realise who
         And what we are now

While later in the section 'An Encounter Upon the Beach at Minehead With the Prince of this World', we are into a sort of antinomian, non-Christian religious concern:

         I was once part of the Eternal when
         He decreed his rights as absolutes
         Taking from all their independent life.
                                                       No, I said
         I declare myself against this arrogance ...

Yet this other 'he'
- the Prince of this World -

         He seeks to redeem into perfection
                                                and unfall
         Your slow descent into the divine.

A mixture of Meister Eckhardt's man becoming god and the Pelagian heresy?  Interesting.

Interesting like so much in this book but hard to get a handle on as with a lot of postmodern writing. Best, therefore, to quote:

The noise of the little birds
         Flitting in to bond and gossip
         These swarm up in whirling clouds
         And leave...

         And then the dead, those we love and hate
         Who cannot be shaken off, they hold to
         What we desire to say until each word
         Leaves ...
         (from 'An Attempt at Some Final Poems'
                  from 'On Being Voiced: High Steps Breeding
                              (a Broadcast of Radio Alterity)'

Beautiful, again, like so much in this book; and even where I canÕt follow it, beautiful still. Let others see what they make of Textual Possessions; I'd like to hear their views.

         © William Oxley 2004