Wednesday, June 14, 2017

John Phillips, Shape of Faith


Reading Jean Daive on his friend Paul Celan: struck by this sentence: a stranger to nothing in this world. Looking back through the book, I can’t find those words anywhere. Yet swear I read it this afternoon, sitting on the bench in the garden, while my daughter Lana slept upstairs and the house was otherwise empty. It was a line that pierced me. Perhaps because my first reaction to it, however brief, was positive. Then the shock, the revulsion: that someone could say that about another person; that it could be true.

I’m intrigued by British poet John Phillips’ fourth full-length poetry collection, Shape of Faith (Shearsman Books, 2017), following his Language Is (Sardines Press, 2005), What Shape Sound (Skysill Press, 2011) and Heretic (Longhouse, 2016). The threads of his influence in this collection are clear and multiple, building a collection as much as a collage of forms and purpose as one constructed with a singular, stylistic focus. Composing a series of lyrics of sparse, tight phrases (akin to the poems of Canadian poet Nelson Ball) to prose poems, Phillips’ Shape of Faith includes a variety of pieces situated between the short lyric and the prose structure. Through form, subject and dedication, Phillips references Gael Turnbull, Theodore Enslin, Dag Hammarskjöld, Robert Lax, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Michael Palmer, Paul Celan, Fernando Pessoa, Keith Waldrop, John Levy, Randolph Healy, Cid Corman and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Given this is the first collection of Phillip’s I’ve read, I’m curious to know if this is an ongoing consideration of his work, or if this collection is constructed specifically as a series of homages to other writers, allowing his reading to more obviously and overtly influence his work. The effect is compelling, but occasionally the results don’t strike. Somehow, it’s in the poles where his lyric seems most effective, whether composing a straight prose poem, such as “THEORY OF COMPOSITION,” or in a densely packed, sparse lyric such as “MOUNTAINS & RIVERS” or “READING,” that writes:

these words

know more
than you

you came here
for a purpose

no word
could give.

Either way, the mix is quite striking, and am curious to see what else he has done (and might do in the future).

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