Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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Language Is

John Phillips

Sardines Press ($10)

by Richard Owens

British poet John Phillips's latest collection, Language Is, is evidence of the consanguinity his work shares with American poets, particularly Cid Corman and Lorine Niedecker. His tight, highly condensed verse calls attention to language as a thing always already removed from that which it points toward. Language, as a vehicle of transmission, only points back to itself as a means of transmission:

The act of using words would
make it seem there was
a particular thing I had to say.
It is not so. Words being more
the thing itself I want to see
sound how it means to be—
whatever another might hear
say themselves to for the same.

The poem for Phillips is a machine capable of examining the ambiguities within its own constituent parts. Just as the Language Poets vigorously interrogated the hidden structures of language through poetry, Phillips explores the luggage concealed in names and the act of naming. The nominal for Phillips does not point toward a thing but merely suggests a metonymical nearness. Names only point toward other names which can only ever suggest:

Lately
I notice each
word I say
leans to
meaning elsewise
beyond what
simply
it is to—is
said to—name.

The nominal carries us close to a thing, brings us within shouting distance of the thing, but cannot deliver us to the thing itself. That which is named brings us only to other names, just as Fenollosa indicated in his exploration of the poetic nature of the Chinese ideogram. Language is a matrix of metaphor and metonymy which often serves to confuse rather than clarify:

What help is there
for what you're after
when you're up with
what nothing
has been found for

It is this which Phillips most rigorously explores in these tightly wound poems—the elusive and inherently negative otherness concealed in every act of linguistic indication. And in using the short poem to explore the ambiguities and tensions woven deeply into the foundational structures of language, Phillips synthesizes eastern and western traditions. Like Corman, Phillips packages issues specific to continental philosophy in a rhetorical poetic form specific to East Asian literatures. In doing so, he reveals a transnational otherness which lies at the heart of both his own poetic project and the very structure of language:

The problem
appears to be
you cannot
confess
to being
who you are
without being
at the same time
another
and that
is the one
you speak of
in failing
to speak
of yourself.

The value of these poems lies primarily in their ability to delicately couch monumental philosophical issues in short verse. Rather than truncating these issues, as the short form he has selected might suggest, Phillips cunningly leads us toward and into these issues using a form employed more by American writers than British. Perhaps with time he may come to enjoy a readership in his native England comparable to the one he already has in the US.