TEXT review

Singing with Colour

review by Dominique Hecq



Glen Phillips
Shanghai Suite and Other Poems
ICLL (International Centre for Landscape and Language), Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley, WA, 2009
ISBN 978- 0- 646- 51037- 8
Pb, 62pp, AU$14.95

Anne Born and Glen Phillips
Singing Granites: Poems of Devon and Gondwanaland
Oversteps Books, Nr Kingsbridge UK, 2008
ISBN 978-1-906856-00-7
Pb, 155pp, UK£12.00 / AU$29.95

Glen Phillips' poems are like bright coloured oil pastels. He observes a refreshing simplicity, almost at times bordering on the naïve, often giving a voice to awe or sheer wonder in the face of what he has called elsewhere (on his Edith Cowan University web profile) 'the using up of one's life by the carelessness of our youthful years'. Perhaps this explains why butterflies abound in this collection. Listen to the sound of rain on an umbrella in the poem 'Rain on Bridges', for instance: 'I shared umbrellas often with you in the streets/ of Shanghai, under surprise spring showers/ walking with bicycle between us and the rain/ pattering on the umbrella, like butterflies/ trapped in a paper bag'.

The unpredictable structures of anecdote, chat, gossip, or meditation are brought to some discursive order with a certain sense of wonder. These poems indeed enter a vivid, intimate, orderly space while avoiding the allegorical tendency of poetry used as a moralising instrument. Phillips does not sermonise, but he does have something of ethical import to say. His naïve surface seems calculated, weighted, timed, and sharpened with wry honesty or smoothed. His playfulness conveys the power of surprise, desire, humour, passion and joie de vivre. At times, however, the teacher cuts off the poet and the result is rather contrived, as is the case with 'The Door to it All' and 'Prometheus Bound'.

It could be said that Phillips' poetry is risky for having no agenda but human emotion itself and respect for all things living. The poems in Shangai Suite whisper and seduce, nudging at the reader's heart without being sentimental for all their nostalgia, taking him or her on a journey through the streets and landscapes and vistas and inscapes of Shanghai-or as in 'Cruising down the River', through history. The voice is understated, self-deprecating, almost humble, but for sudden, almost child-like over-confident outbursts. Or indeed guilty confessions, as in the tender poem 'In my Lady's Chamber'. The reason for this is that the other in its multiple avatars is respected as other.

The poems in Singing Granites: Poems of Devon and Gondwanaland comprise alternating sections by Phillips and Anne Born, an English poet who shares his love of granite. Phillips's poems in this collection display stronger technical control of feeling and thought. Perhaps this is because here Phillips is on familiar ground, namely the granite-based areas of Western Australia. The poems playfully unroll a series of colourful images beyond their materiality, as if the speaker cannot resist the pull of the land. One has a strong sense here that poetry is rooted in surrendering to a state of mind as it is rather than in some abstract subject we think poetry ought to be-this makes me realise that Shanghai Suite is at times didactic.

The poems in Singing Granites sing with energy. The images are clear and compelling, the rhythms strong and the lines cleanly cut. These are poems that resound with trust, wit and wondrous wisdom: 'to a child's eye this is all joy -/ the yellow crawling machines/ hooking and tearing at thicket/ and tussock: the land subdued/ and sealed with a grey ribbon/ of stone' ('Granite Roads').

Anne Born's poems, on the other hand, have the sharpness of acrylics. They demonstrate great confidence in her handling of words. The language is sharp, accurate, incisive and fierce, to the point of being savage, as in 'The Bone Shed', that 'foul hell-hall' where 'The air drummed by mallets/ reduced the stuff to bone-meal/ and other horrors'. Like Phillips, Born walks the reader through granite landscapes to fashion metaphors of states of mind, but her attention to the accuracy of facts is what bowls you over. Here is a poet who is less interested in aestheticising the landscape than in the grit of history large and small. She will march you down lanes and alley-ways and show you castles, but she will also rub your nose in the dirt of everyday living, for 'The dark men with rocky faces/ have no need of roads/ Their feet, hard as the granite domes/ intruding into their flatland, feel no thorn'.

Anne Born doesn't speak for herself, but rather ghosts herself into men whose voice she breathes out. The exception is 'Love' from the suite of poems detailing the life of John Boyle O'Reilly, where a woman called Jessie Woodman briefly appears and relates matter-of-factly their first encounter: 'When he came into the shaking heat/ out of black shade, I knew him'. No surrender for this poet. No playfulness, desire, humour, passion and joie de vivre. Like the man 'On the cairn [who] woke at sun-up/ felt the stones' hard pulse/ the push of magma', the poet pushes on. There is a strong sense that her poems want to abolish any possibility of solipsism but can only do so by a splitting of the speaker's allegiances between the materiality of the physical world and the self-embrace which would put its own gesture in question (the self-reflection that goes beyond shunning emotion).

At times, the intense brevity of Born's poems, isolating individual words in the reader's attention, transforms each noun into a large scale metonymy until what that noun represents is also capable of standing for the world as a whole, as in the breathtakingly beautiful 'Multiply, Increase' from which I'd like to quote the first two stanzas:

Crack, crack
a boulder
in two halves opened
so he can set a new pattern
new skin on their innermost intricate patterning

of numbers
sculptor and poet
make their own significant sums
from the stuff of stone and word disciplined by the count.

I found reading these two collections on a wintery Sunday in Melbourne quite soothing, refreshing and, yes, humbling. There is this mind's life, I thought, this world I am in, and there is also all my hopes and anxieties which are disguised in it, are fantasies generated by it, which comprise the chaos of my daily existence, and yet there is still this unconditioned intention when all is said and done. And it is out of this clash between what is totally conditioned and the unconditioned that poetry might happen: 'This is country of our flesh/ the granite stones will receive us/ only our bones and teeth will not/ leak away into worm-wrought soil' (Phillips, 'Falling Asleep Again and Again').




Dominique Hecq is the author of a novel (The Book of Elsa), three collections of short fiction (Magic, Mythfits and Noisy Blood), and three books of poetry (The Gaze of Silence, Good Grief and Couchgrass). One Eye Too Many and Cakes & Pains were performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Dominique's awards for poetry include The New England Review Prize for Poetry (2005) and The Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry (2006). She was short-listed for the inaugural Blake Prize for Poetry (2008) and highly commended in its second year. Out of Bounds is her latest collection. She works at Swinburne University of Technology.


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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb