Intriguing Minimalism & Anarchist Tendencies

What Shape Sound
, John Phillips (Skysill Press)
The Commons, Sean Bonney (Openned Press)

John Phillips' poetry mixes an intriguing minimalism with a philosophical enquiry into the relation between language, the world and ourselves. Although his work refers indirectly to Heraclitus and Wittgenstein, there's a lightness of touch here, which makes these short lyrics satisfying and approachable, even though they are also puzzling and mind-bending, somewhat akin to R.D. Laing's Knots.

Take 'river clouds', for example.

     river clouds

Which has a neat lyrical feel as well as being explicable and existentially suggestive.This is not a description which induces angst or puzzlement but reflection and, dare I say it, positive thought, in the best sense of the term! The following section from 'Black and White' has a similar feel to start with, then - due mainly to its 'treble-negative', I think, - turns into something more puzzling:

     Look, the sky's still there.
     It doesn't even surprise you. As if
     one day soon you will
     not look up and see
     nothing looking back
     at no one looking.

What this does is to force the readers to focus on the way we all take language for granted. Phillips plays with our 'unexamined cliches' and the way in which we think we are describing the world we exist in when we talk or write about it. There's an estranging quality about his writing which rather than creating anxiety or fear induces curiosity, not just about the world possibly, but our place in it and the way in which language, because 'immediate' and 'unconscious', has a mediating function which inevitably creates a gap between subject and description. While linguists and philosophers have engaged with this dilemma across the centuries, Phillips has developed his craft and skill to such a degree that the process becomes a kind of gentle enquiry whereby the action of writing - and thinking about writing - becomes somehow naturalised to the point that while there's an element of game-playing going on there is also an approach to the world which has the feel of 'natural philosophy'. The fact that these poems are also pleasurable to read, ponder, puzzle over and (usually) come to no definite conclusion about, is simply our good luck. This is a rare field which John Phillips is ploughing and we are the richer for his efforts:

     That story you always thought
     you had to tell was never yours
     to know or tell   Even so
     you tried to tell it just
     the same   As if any story told
     proved the teller true

You sort of know what he's getting at here and just when you think you've grasped it entirely (didn't MacNeice write a poem about this?) the whole thing proves elusive and elsewhere. A bit like that feeling of dejavu. I loved reading these poems for a whole variety of reasons. Great stuff.

The Commons is a neat, pocket-size edition with cover artwork that could easily have introduced Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium. Which is kind of appropriate, since Bonney's new collection is filled with reference to seventeenth century submerged cultural groupings, to the Paris Commune and to the 1917 revolution in Russia as well as the student uprisings in 1968. The Selected Resources section at the end of this 80 page booklet suggests the use of montage as a key method here and Bonney's repeated echoes from folk song - Thomas the Rhymer, for example - suggest a militant, hidden, cultural and political opposition to the oppressive powers of government and capitalism itself. There are also many references to zombies - The Night of the Living Dead appears to be a favourite film - and an intuitively anarchic, somewhat republican mood is created throughout this impressive collection of untitled 14-liners. As Bonney apparently says of himself:

     I seem to have anarchic tendencies
     but I hang around with Trots.

These are mainly short-line poems, which veer between working individually 'as lines' but often run over and create strange connecting near narratives which force you to think about what is being said or suggested. I'd say that Tom Raworth was a big influence here and Bonney's mixing of different sorts of language breaks that smooth, controlling sense of an 'authorial voice' - these are ranting fragments which jar and provoke yet there's a musicality to this writing which makes you want to read the work quickly and without too much interruption. These are mainly dystopian poems I'd say, using the past to respond critically to the here and now, the ongoing crisis that we're in, but there are more idealistic elements involved and I also find myself discovering in Bonney's work, a sense of humour, something I've not really picked up before:

     I bet she did I bet she
     got up & performed his ambitions
     malevolent shine
     gonna build me a log cabin
     night of the living dead
     jokes about gordon brown
     something called the english democrats
     on fire:
     she would beat them to ashes
     with a ring of teeth
     & roses-
     say cuckoo-
     got up this morning
     performed my alienations

The title presumably refers to the seat of government, clearly in a dismissive, non-deferential manner, but may also refer indirectly to 'the commoners', the less-than-powerful victims of the city and of advanced capitalism. Bonney is working within a 'repressed' literary tradition, using Christopher Hill and left-leaning prog. rock, among other unusual combinations, to say something acerbic, new and splenetic, in a scholarly kind of way, about the nation state and the wider world. His use of repetition aids the musicality and produces strange juxtapositions, which amuse, provoke and attack. Altogether a splendid collection and Sean Bonney's best work for some time, I think.

    Steve Spence 2012