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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Clive Faust reviews
Language Is
John Phillips

46 pages. Sardines Press. Paperback. $10/£5. 0-9729213-3-8 paper
Sardines Press
303 Ortega Street, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
sardinespress [ât] mac [dot] com

This review is about 5 printed pages long.


Cid Corman hello’d me to John Phillips as an emerging poet, a few years ago now, and I was struck by the deftness of the placing of small details and large themes – the first isolated, the second evoked – in this latest of the long line evolving from Basho and Wang Wei: one of the great lines of world poetry. The immediate precursor was obviously Corman himself, yet there is a tinge, and at depths a weight of melancholy that makes Phillips’ work distinct from Corman’s; while the pacing is different. You do come up in clear air here, but often there’s been a swell.

Mountains darken






a river
the sea

(And notice the delicacy and the shift of heft in the drop to the amphibrach, then to the iambus, in the last stanza.)

Water, particularly the sea, is everywhere as the backdrop to Phillips’ poetry, and eventually forms swells and tides in it, even at the back of subjects that are disparate – a local that’s also a universal.

bread &

moon slung


There is a philosopher waiting to get out here, teased into emergence, perhaps, by the visual conundrums that a poet either nails – and particularizes, or leaves up in the air hanging visible [1] or invisible as an interrogative:

rain no
longer rain
I step





The philosopher has materialized – if that’s how a philosopher shapes himself ( had pretensions there once myself – ‘immaterialised’?) from the simple fundamentals here into a number of important quandaries John Phillips now has about language – its relationship to the world of static or moveable objects, and its relationship to events and thus to time. It’s the quest of everyman – viz. an essential activity in being human.

Phillips’ latest book – Language Is – still has the “earlier” conundrums, as here:

The sun moves over water clear
enough is seen to change
the change itself what it means
darker reflecting no other
lights lighted the context
in full the running tide grown
suddenly gentle

But he moves now more into speculative, or “conceptual” problems – though not rationalizing those through, on party lines, but aware of understanding as being like a bush track to be traversed, hills and gulleys, trees and clearances. And there is a sense of time elapsing, and what that means, always, with Phillips:


All writing
is written

in a past
the future

reads backwards
to be now.

(That is neat. La Rochefoucauld would, likely enough, have been proud of it.)

And (something I like) he gets carted off against abstraction, sometimes, into the world he is describing, language through it or not:

… I say

snow is falling.
Snow says cold

says deep
white light flakes slow

to slow ground.
Say is

and is is vast –
is this self

watching still snow

falling – to

each and other
all not here.

(“ is is vast” is a marvelous working over of the copula.)

Yet there are also poems on fundamental philosophical themes:

Language we
that we

Reraising a question from some famous lines of Goethe.

But he is very aware of the reflexivity in any approach to these problems:

What we read
we write
the text of.

Giving modern textual assumptions their due, but not their overdue.

And to return to one of my favourite themes (and evidently his):


Years ago
I never
thought I’d be

looking back
to days yet
to happen.

Not knowing
where they went,
who with them.

And yes, indeed.

   Haven’t said much about John Phillips’ technical feats, and won’t say much now – except that he is a virtuoso with both accentual and syllabic verse, and with their interlacings. A lot of poets now just let rip, or let leak – and that’s okay if you know what to let rip from, and with. Phillips has developed the mastery, so he can improvise from it – with impunity – as Chopin improvised after a thorough grounding in The Well-Tempered Clavichord and Mozartian sonata form. It is the improvisation of a master not the improvisation of an apprentice. Nor that of a dropout, who imagines he/she has no need to do an apprenticeship in poetry for, as it thinks, the flame will be ignited anyhow in spontaneous combustion when the spirit has blown upon it.

   So. Cid Corman was busy editing the first issues of a new series of Origin when he died, and John Phillips was to have been one of the first poets featured – in an edition devoted mainly to his work. John would have then joined Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov and Louis Zukofsky [2] as significant writers to have their careers kick-started by Origin. Unfortunately Corman died after completing the first issue of the new magazine. But the fact of his intention to feature Phillips is a serious endorsement of this emerging poet’s value, as a crucial figure in what would have been the last series of Corman’s famous little magazine.

Note 1 He also has some of his “last” conundrums earlier.
Note 2 And among the living – Ted Enslin, David Miller, Bob Arnold and George Evans.