“Recommended Retail Prices, art / with a capital R”

INSTANT-fLEX 718, Heather Phillipson, Bloodaxe, £8.95
reviewed by Dave Coates

Heather Phillipson is well-regarded as a conceptual artist and, while her brash primary colours employed there are engaging and enthusiastic, this approach doesn’t translate well to the page in her debut collection, INSTANT-fLEX 718. The book suffers primarily from a paucity of emotional engagement, secondarily from the author’s impulse to drop names/big words in place of a poem’s motivating concept. For example, ‘Relational Epistemology,’ which begins:

‘It’s whatever you want it to be,’ said my father
after he bisected My Little Pony and used her in a sculpture.
At bedtime he read me Kafka’s short fiction.

After mentioning Kafka, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, little is made of their presence. They appear as decoration and leave little impression on the poem’s substance. A self-consciously esoteric story about a young girl trying to be normal in an excessively intellectual home, it is too hung up on its own cleverness to include the reader.

The book is also slightly problematic when it encounters the poet’s body, in poems like ‘German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’, ‘Although You Do Not Know Me, My Name is Patricia’ and ‘Horse Jacuzzi’. In all cases the female body is presented straight-facedly as desirable object; although not necessarily harmful in isolation, in context with our culture at large it’s unedifying to see this harmful trope go so unchallenged. A cover blurbs reads, “[HP’s] poems fuse subterranean erotic landscapes with the complex pleasures of thought”; there are far more complex pleasures of thought found in Sharon Olds’ and Sinead Morrissey’s most recent books, and means of discussing sex, sexuality and women’s bodies without such simple objectification.

The book occasionally comes close to genuine sentimental power before falling foul of its worst instincts. In ‘The Baby [hereafter referred to as ‘The Baby’] hereby contracts with The Mother [hereafter referred to as ‘The Mother’] –’, Phillipson describes how “Time will be diced into a number of segments. Now/ it is one thousand four hundred and forty minutes per day,// The Baby will look peppier every second,/ reminding The Mother of mortal human frailty.” The conceit and execution are excellent; how often do we reprimand ourselves for feeling contractually obliged to those we love most? But in the closing stanzas the poet indulges a tendency for cuteness with a six-line list of things The Baby will get used to, like “rhinoplasty, ritual polygamy, Recommended Retail Prices, art/ with a capital R”, which hamstrings the poem’s interior strength.

INSTANT-fLEX 718 relies too heavily on the reader necessarily caring about its vignettes of modern, solitary city life; one of the book’s shortcomings is a failure to translate the passionate episodes from the poet’s experience into something emotionally recognisable. To put it bluntly, sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly what Phillipson wants to convey. Had the poet taken more care in crafting the dramatic core of these poems and less on their idiosyncratic exteriors, this would have been a far stronger collection.

Dave Coates

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