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  • Cleome Rawnsley

(REVIEW) Instant-flex 718 and Whip-hot & Grippy by Heather Phillipson

Front cover of the poetry collection Whip-Hot & Grippy by Heather Phillipson with glitchy mix of colours (blue, yellow, brown, pink). Half of a black cat's face can be seen in the foreground with bright green eyes. In front of the black cat, a seagull flies.

Cleome Rawnsley explores the poetics of bad love, emerging from congregational spaces in Heather Phillipson's collections Instant-flex 718 (2013, Bloodaxe Books) and Whip-hot & Grippy (2019, Bloodaxe Books).

> ‘He tells me: “There’s a lot of bad love going around”.’

> There is, and it’s in leisure centres and airports and car parks and supermarkets. Bad love in all its guises: mild love, dull desire and, finally, heartbreak. The kind of love that is not what you thought it would be, and you’re not sure you want. It’s sometimes all over, everywhere, occurring in language and the body as omission and hesitation, discomfort and malaise. It is a futile reach for something better than what you’ve got in front of you.

> It acts as a force running through the poems of Heather Phillipson’s two collections Instant-flex 718 (2013, Bloodaxe Books) and Whip-hot & Grippy (2019, Bloodaxe Books). At the start of lockdown, I read the first for the first time and the latter for the second, struck by what I now felt to be an ethics of bad love permeating the poems. I had just ended a relationship with someone. I felt heartbroken anyway. I couldn’t call upon the normal channels, exterior to my bedroom and myself, that would help expel these shitty emotions: friendship, sex, movement, work, even time was different. Heartbreak never happens efficiently.

> These two collections read like compendiums of some individual and collective heartbreaks, as attempts at verbalising bad love arrive at congregational spaces and seep into public life. Such attempts are especially fraught, turning apocalyptic, in Whip-hot and Grippy. Reading Instant-flex 718, many of the places, items, feelings and words that will come to inhabit Phillipson’s future poetic landscape start to leave their impression. ‘Ablutions’ is a particularly mild love poem that has a speaker soaking themselves in the bath as they address the object of their affections: ‘How devastating you looked today across Soho Square / in your pink cashmere sweater, / your man-bag over your left shoulder.’ It’s the odd over-determinedness of the figure that works at obscuring something of what they, in Soho Square, in sweater, with bag, are to the speaker, the poem. The romantic declaration that follows, and its rhyme – ‘Your eyes are blue, I have loved you / since I noted your lashes in profile’ – is so perfectly simple as to be faintly ridiculous. A preceding line, ‘How hard it is to get things right’, is about the temperature of the bathwater as much as it is about anything, shrouding the poem in a state of pre-disappointment.

> In ‘Devoted, Hopelessly’, our speaker meets Ben,

… by chance, by the derelict jobcentre. He tells me: “There’s a lot of bad love going around.” On the concrete, a snail is a comma or an apostrophe, depending on context.

Ghosts of former lovers, a swathe of dead poets – ‘The only men it’s safe for me to love’ – populate the poem. All the love in this one seems impossible, most of the words that happen here are secondary, mediated through other matter: poetry is held in the library, someone etches ‘Marry me!’ into snow, the speaker writes in the margins. This circulation of arrested, stilted expressions and intimacies emerges as something central to the poems. We are in the Czech Republic, in ‘Dear John Baldessari’, where ‘everyone was French kissing like an advert for sexy deodorant’. Sex in these poems is clinical, like deodorant, like what we use to prevent stuff from getting out and seeping towards others. Passion and eroticism are approximated, as if we never knew how they were meant to be in the first place, like a man saying ‘I have the idea that something MIGHT happen … but not necessarily.’ And then they are shoved into the world, to be billboarded, aloofly.

> ‘For the record, we are undertaking research into Love, or Something Similar Assembled in the Factories of Imagination.’

> ‘Although You Do Not Know Me, My Name Is Patricia’ is one of the earlier poems of Phillipson’s that most resemble those of Whip-hot & Grippy: pages stuffed with items, exchanges and scenery situated in doomed lifetimes that aren’t ours, but are perilously close. Take the speaker’s ‘research into Love’, in which lubrication is margarine, which acts dangerously like sweat. ‘Panic and relentless love are easily mistaken.’ As for sex:

Tons of sex. Twice a night for a month, then every other night for two months. Soon it was three times a week for a year, then once a week. Now, almost never. Don’t worry though, the future is broken anyway. Something went wrong a while back. Why else would we huddle in cities, if not to feel better (if not safe exactly).

From past sex to current sex to a sudden future, already determined, already doomed. Perhaps it is the anxiety of not saying the right things that invites the saying of so much, so quickly, by Phillipson. Her poems are a document that resonates toward the future and its wealth of disappointments, and one of the biggest disappointments is the place where we have to live it.

> Bad love permeates public space because so much public space as we know it now is defined by its not-quite being so. The poems of Whip-hot & Grippy escalate Instant-flex 718’s shit intimacies as they happen in more shit spaces, places that seem fundamental to an overall shit-ness. This evolution between volumes reflects some sharpened concern, even obsession, with the built environment and how it holds us. To take the ambiguity that Instant-flex 718’s speaker channels as a feature of bad love is to start finding it everywhere, permeating inside, outside and their in-betweens. The acceleration, over the last decade, of the privatisation of public exteriors is heavy with this ambiguity. It’s a privatisation that can occur across many layers, from the ownership to the management of a space, and in different shades, its composite parts sometimes experiencing different levels of private control. A place like this is necessarily weird. Its purpose is utterly confused: it doesn’t know what it’s doing and we don’t know what we’re doing in it. The city becomes a soup of fakely public areas.

> Phillipson currently has an artwork on display in Trafalgar Square titled The End. It is a sculpture that sits atop a plinth in a space that is (almost) fully public, according to most barometers. The sculpture was due to be erected in March, but its installation was delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. This is apocalypticism, public space, fragile bodies that are ripe for contamination; this is her poetry. Phillipson’s latest collection, and latest artwork, now feel prophetic. In her poetic rushes towards futurity, she has managed to eerily predict much of the oddness of pandemic life. Sex as ‘long-distance chat with no physical contact’; anxiety that is confused with ‘a frisson of isolation’. She also tends to carry something of the primordial along with her: ‘Language is like teeth, which, before we let language appear, were for murdering or caressing.’ Hints of a desire to return to a pre-linguistic space start here in ‘Guess what?’ and continue to simmer gently under many of these poems. It’s a desire to do away with poetry, symbolism, sentences that are ‘too tranquil / to describe what we FEEL’ (‘when did you start feeling like this?’).

> In all their shouty eagerness, replete as they are with proclamations, advisories, messages coming from elsewhere, the poems are also frustrated at language, at the apparently inescapable break between words and meaning, feeling. ‘so what / if I said you were BEAUTIFUL / and nearly meant it’ embodies this kind of verbal bad love. The specifics of life-in-heartbreak are painfully everywhere, as in 'CHEERS'

(to the future when someone else will have their bum where mine is listening to someone else tell them they miss their ex)

and ‘it’s getting rough for thoughts cut up by conventions / we must thump through though it hurts our muscles’ (‘… who needs a person / when a person is already a gulf’). Elsewhere there are phrases of such wide implication that it jars for them to rub up against these more specific sad bits. Take ‘Earlye in the Morning’ and its pronouncements ‘We thought it was a cautionary tale about our insatiable desire for more and it was’ and ‘Yet the thirst remains identical, for love to continue and be gradually different.’ These lines slot between the poem’s surreal, writhing landscape of melting sky, bubbling tarmac and an invasion of toads. The monuments of supermarkets and car parks, though, still remain. The impression is that Phillipson wants to say something about these most mundane of places, about how they can also be so fundamentally weird. Weird in that they represent the uncomfortable public/private mix in a different way to other spaces; they invite congregation for the purposes of essential, but profitable, human activity. They are not places you can love.

> Other poems suspend heartbreak within environments that aren’t as jarring; less restless, more of our world. An ‘… exposed lightly stained hardwood picnic bench / plonked for years beside a busy road getting eroded’, in ‘CHEERS!’, calls forth the particular gentle deterioration of motorway surroundings. ‘Immediately we think of the city paved with lettuces’ is a line from ‘hankering incarnate & the apocryphal sputum bath-craze’ that is surreal, maybe, but lacks the sinister edge that totally upends other of the poems. The speed at which Phillipson’s poems advance can then surprise you with something sometimes properly sad, like the following line: ‘I’d forgotten things can be gorgeous in the middle of tumult’, or a moment from ‘everything slapped and candied an opening’, which is a poem mostly about vomit:

I laugh tenderly, liquidly, feeling like a bit of a sicko a very expert sicko and step back, wearing my face which is the face of a narrator, saying this is a horror story. A horror like gazing into your partner’s eyes over a 2for1 crisp bag at a motorway service station, knowing his sexts are crap and all feelings are treated equally here, that is, bare and fruitless, and you’ll be living through it, the years of pruning.

> In a 2014 video work of Phillipson’s, put the goat in the goat boat, she implores us, in a voiceover accompanying views of naked limbs, cows and countryside, to ‘… think of nature as a big room. We all like big rooms, except those who like small rooms.’ This statement dangles the implications of making distinctions between human and animal nature before us, a topic that is especially present in much of Phillipson’s visual work. It is, though, the image of nature, the outside, as a contained room which is most jolting, which summons the uneasy claustrophobia of the environments in her poems. In a Vdrome article that accompanied a recent online screening of put the goat…, Paul Clinton also references 2015’s EAT HERE, then displayed at the Schirn in Frankfurt. The work arranged ‘items connected to personal and environmental heartbreak’ around a massive polystyrene foot, ‘stamping out sentimentalism’, below two screens playing a video piece, COMMISERATIONS!. Phillipson’s focus on the environment and its looming end is a concern that is rooted firmly in our lifetime and not just in one that hovers beyond reality, as in the disorder of her poems. It is represented in the teetering landscapes that she situates her later poems in, but also in the occasional arrival of a sentence that removes itself from this specificity to offer something of a mild consolation – or, indeed, commiseration – that acknowledges the inevitability of this apocalypticism while knowing that little can be offered to counter it. This is part of the nature of living in a world suffused with bad love; apologies and regrets are muted, the awareness of the heartbreak that is omnipresent too strong.

> What buoys our heartbreak now? We have found ourselves living lives in surroundings that have to be mentally negotiated in a way that most of us have never experienced. The places where we can go – as in, where we are sanctioned going / as in, where we feel comfortable going / as in, where we are obliged to go – have changed, and continue changing. In the most immediate of terms, because of a lockdown that has been effected through confusion, wrongness and doublespeak. But we are also living through a suffusion of the private into the simple movement of wandering, getting from a to b, meeting, sitting, resting. Moments of our collective lives and our intimate lives have to have some kind of setting by which they are coloured, in the way nostalgia happens, the way familiarity happens. Now it’s these sites which are suffused with heartbreak too; no longer can we take our bodies just anywhere, with anyone. Our intimacies are interrupted and disappointed like where they are conducted.

> ‘and the words I’ve spent / telling you about puking / are actually time / and how I feel about that is potent’

> Getting over heartbreak is defined by a stark desire to just be Over It, to rip it out, to puke it out, to have time collapse in order for it to elapse. But heartbreak never happens efficiently. Public-space heartbreaks are slow because we’re not to know what’s public space anymore, and what’s no longer. It takes time for space to change, like it takes time to notice it happening. Time is spent, too, mentally reconfiguring intimacy between ourselves, in public, over covid time. And against the large loom of apocalypticism, it turns tiresome to know that we are never safe from bad love, from getting our little hearts broken.


Instant-flex 718 (2013, Bloodaxe Books) can be bought here and Whip-hot & Grippy (2019, Bloodaxe Books) ordered here.


Text: Cleome Rawnsley

Published: 30/10/20


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