Phillipson's debut collection displays her accomplished approach to language in playful yet weighty free verse
In tandem with her rise as a poet, Heather Phillipson has emerged as an artist who combines video, live performance and text. In 2008, she completed a PhD in fine art and won an Eric Gregory award for her poetry. Since then, she has given performances at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and Kunsthalle Basel, presented installations at the Whitechapel Gallery (London) and Circa (Newcastle), and published the pamphlet Faber New Poets 3 (2009) and mini-book Not an Essay (Penned in the Margins, 2012). What unifies her work is the importance of language and her engagement with it.
While Instant-flex 718 offers Phillipson's words without images or live vocals, a consistent voice brings the book's many interests together within a single, modern sensibility. Largely in free verse with the occasional, less effective poem in prose, Phillipson's work has a conversational urgency and an elliptical logic more common in contemporary American poetry, as in that of Cathy Wagner or Jane Yeh. Here, in its entirety, is Phillipson's poignant short lyric, "Unapproachable Regions", in which the title informs all that follows:
"Evening catches./ I work out fourth position against the banister,// articulate who I need to be./ Music makes me crumple and rain is likely tomorrow.// By the attic window, the amaryllis./ I press the fingerboard, practice.// In the hills, I was glad and weak at the top./ What I cannot express, the violin cannot help with."
Martin Heidegger, Frank O'Hara, Samuel Beckett and Charlotte Brontë are all mentioned in the collection. Melville even receives his own poem, "When the City Centre's at a Standstill, It's Really Quite a Thrill to Lie in the Road and Read Herman Melville". As the title suggests, these figures are not always reverentially invoked, but challenged and sometimes rejected. By engaging with their ideas, Phillipson incorporates them into her thinking, and on her own terms. As the poem "Heliocentric Cosmology" concludes: "I had discovered that the earth goes around the sun./ Copernicus pre-discovered it."
Recalling her work as an artist, there are descriptions of conceptual art works – "1960s Monochrome Hollywood Paraphernalia ($47, collection only)" – and the reader is guided through an installation: "You might say we've got it all. Get a load of the lighting." While Phillipson touches on more conventional poetic subjects such as motherhood and romantic love, her approaches prove wonderfully singular. The opening poem, "At First, the Only Concern is Milk, More or Less," compares to Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song", capturing the otherness of this new creature that came from the self. Phillipson's poem, though, reveals her concern with language: "But where's the baby that's going to be/ conned one second by the words, think them relevant?"
For all the playfulness in Instant-flex 718, it also addresses the weighty issues – mortality, the relationship between mind and body, the extinction of species, religion – and its lively combination of intelligence, verve and humour makes it a debut that is both unusually accomplished and unusually pleasurable to read.
• Carrie Etter's Imagined Sons will be published by Seren next year.