Where new writing finds its voice

Heather Phillipson – Faber New Poets 3

Benjamin Miller

Faber, 2009

A career in poetry, if there ever was such a thing, cannot be hurried. One need only look at the sparse output of a modern luminary like Ian Hamilton to prove the statement. Whilst there may be fast-track graduate trainee programmes for everything from the civil service to McDonald’s, poetry resists. 

There will be those, therefore, who react with immediate distaste to the four Faber New Poets, one of whom is Heather Phillipson. Funded by Arts Council England, the new initiative aims to nurture budding young poetic talent through a ‘programme of mentorship, bursary and pamphlet publication.’

However, the appellation ‘Faber New Poet’ belies Phillipson’s proven proficiency in her craft and the already verified audience for her work. The poems in this collection are not simply the callow witterings of a melancholy teenager, sent in to ‘see if they are any good’. Many of them have previously appeared in magazines and journals such as this one, the Spectator, Magma and Poetry London. On top of this, Phillipson won an Eric Gregory Award in 2008 and was awarded the Michael Donaghy Poetry Prize from Birkbeck College in 2007. She is hardly a writer who is just starting out.

Yet she is also not a writer who has fully discovered her own voice, though this is not necessarily to the detriment of her work. Most of the enduring topics are explored: love, loneliness and loss. But they are examined with a kind of cynical erudition, even in the face of copulation with coffee tables and the domestic discussion of structuralism and phenomenology. 

The sixteen poems in this pamphlet contain all of the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life in London, labradors, 0.2mm fineliners, unsalted peanut butter, Penguin rhyming dictionaries and all. In its formal flexibility, flirtation with domestic madness, and concern with the articles and minutiae of the home, Phillipson’s work is reminiscent of the 2008 Forward Prize-winning collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette, by Kathryn Simmonds. 

What is striking in the first few poems of this small volume is, in fact, the distinct lack of life. In ‘The Routine’, for example, Mrs Turner ‘choreographs the furniture’ as a reaction to the lifeless torpor of her marriage:


The underside of the coffee table is above her.
Four legs, a mahogany belly – it straddles her
On the floor, makes dimples in the pile.


Elsewhere, in ‘Ablutions’, we find a loofah being ‘synchronised’ and the poet’s relationship with a bathtub of more significance than anything else present. Human beings, other than the first person voice of the poem, seem far away; looked at ‘in profile’ or ‘across Soho Square’. 

Like Simmonds, Phillipson combines an unchallenging low lexical density with a veiled complexity in content. As the pamphlet progresses, a stated awareness of the ‘romantic fictions’ we live spurs her on to discuss the opposite sex more directly, though one gets the sense that the reader is always on the ignorant side of a euphemism or innuendo: ‘Women distribute plastic cutlery in the night’ and ‘Men are cutting up the road outside my window, swearing at the sun’. Denied a crucial piece of private information or some shared knowledge, allusive depth is suggested to the reader but never clarified. 

The pamphlet, at times, might also be compared with the work of Wendy Cope. The pessimistic and self-deprecating humour in the opening lines of ‘Devoted, Hopelessly’ recalls Cope’s ‘Another Unfortunate Choice’. Compare ‘I think I am in love with AE Housman’, with:


The only men it’s safe for me to love are dead – 
O’Hara, Stevens, Berryman. They send me to my desk,
Or down the road to get black grapes, fit, and ideas.


Also like Cope is Phillipson’s apparent fondness for the short stanza, particularly the tercet or triplet (four of the sixteen poems take this form). Whilst more formal poems are present, rhyme is teased with but most often abandoned, exemplified in the first four lines of ‘Some Kind of Memento Mori’. The short stanza form aids her particular affection for staccato rhythms, perhaps a remnant of her training as a classical violinist and pianist, as she piles one acute observation upon the next. It is this faculty for close, compressed inspection and her fine eye for detail, which is most impressive about this short collection.

Mark Harris, speaking about Phillipson’s work as a visual artist, recently noted that she is ‘a quiescent observer of events she has nudged into motion’. A statement which might not only apply to Phillipson’s poetry but to the behaviour of many in their affairs with the opposite sex. Heather Phillipson’s great skill is in showing us, on a minute and quotidian level, the forces and the objects that create and construct these events.


Heather Phillipson – Faber New Poets 3 is published by Faber