On The Beach

Are We Not Drawn..., Peter Philpott (111pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)

Peter Philpott uses as an epigraph to his new collection a palindrome quoted in Anne Michael's novel Fugitive Pieces: 'Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to a new era?' There is something here that Philpott wants us to recognise in his spare evocations of place: think Black Mountain poetry relocated to North-West Somerset. For Philpott promising some kind of easy or sustained access to the sublime will be problematic, as indicated in the opening of poem '49' where:

     at dawn

                  what is drawn

     appears just like that!

                                       faint indentations darken

     the whole field glows

                                        illimitably illumined

     every time

                      every time it happens

     something bad

                             maybe they too will pass

     in the cold air they will vanish

If the practice of writing is to offer its author any solace in such a search then some things will have to be jettisoned, re-thought or re-phrased. By the next poem '50' the ground has already shifted so that clarity emerges as much, paradoxically, from the increasing darkness as from the light:

                             what is it lures me so onward?

     the shining path

                               the dawn one time

     the coloured lit emptiness

                                              at dawn one time

     the world gone mysteriously soft


     this happens again


     I'd watch the lack of light

                                               on on on

As a hundred poem sequence, Philpott's Are We Not Drawn exemplifies one of the things that poetry outside the mainstream can do, which is to be adventurous and exploratory in its focus on language and process. Avoiding any sense of triviality or easy emotion, Philpott holds resolutely to avant-garde impulses whereby an inner, decentred voice is the best means to a rich but fractured relationship between subtext and meaning, composition and poetics, abstraction and nature. Each word is studied obsessively for both its imagery and rightness of sound so that repeats, reversals and equivalences of line then form into a kind of constructivist mirror, full of mimicry, as in '70' where 'already losing the lines / after that many repetitions / faint & worn down / what has been worn / up? / a clear & ludicrous joke / lippetty loppetty usw'

Number 'H 68' is the only poem in the sequence where Philpott abandons his set procedure of the broken line 'to hold them still / like cats about to pounce or / the sea drawn back'. Demonstrating how such broken detail can be more compressed, the poem is still shot through with obvious theorising about language, perception and the process of writing itself:

                                   ... a game

     of stupid paradox, that contradicts itself

     and is therefore true, beautiful, and full

                                                                    of live intent

     & we ought to resist

                                      that consonantal chaff

     our language & our self

                                           strimmed out and stalled

In '43', the most Becket-like poem of the sequence, Philpott invites us to be party to his speaker's confused inner state. 'Who am I listening to? / who' becomes an allusion to the unravelling power and effect of estrangement:

     to who

                you can tell it's night

     just don't answer the questions

                                                       whose questions?

     who's question?

                               who is

     the question

                         bloody hell I want

     to stop

                I want







As in many others of the sequence, the poem shows Philpott especially adept in capturing such bleakness, able to fruitfully probe the depths of human existential experience.  His own cover photograph of a stark distant sea on the beach at Minehead seems especially emblematic of a mournful, liminal, reflective but ever-changing space which Philpott summons in his poems.  In '29' we are told 'get ready to descend / on the beach / we all watch the sunset / all / we ever do', while in '22' we are reminded how 'this light / under the world / makes us see / how / briefly / we live'. This ability to achieve a constant yet conversely fragmented movement between the observed world and its representation, in other words, the way we actually mediate the components of everyday life, makes Are We Not Drawn a truly refreshing and remarkable reading experience.  

           Peter Gillies 2009