Review: Recreation Ground by Tom Phillips

The words with which Leontes announced to his Sicilian court his admission of guilt and his determination to seek forgiveness through a recognition of the everyday quality of life, a quality only recognisable to those whose eye is firmly based upon the other rather than the self, seem to me to be a suitable vantage point from which to survey this impressive first full-length collection of poems from Tom Phillips. The act of living depends upon an ordinariness that allows ‘recreation’ to suggest the passing of time with quiet awareness of value, and its record in poetry brings to mind the open letter written by J.H. Prynne in 1972 to Tim Longville, editor of Grosseteste Review, in which he commented upon the issue of the quiet tone to be found in the poetry of William Bronk. Prynne’s letter concluded that the quality of Bronk’s poetry was to be located in the fact that ‘he doesn’t try to undercut a world, by false rhetoric about its negative absoluteness…For us (me?) the calm is true & important, the rest merely true or not true.’ When Leontes announced to his court that he intended to pay a daily visit to the chapel in which his wife lay he also made it clear that ‘tears shed there shall be my re-creation’ (my italics) and saw a powerful concentration upon the moment as being inseparable from a new awareness of being alive.

With a similar care the poem which Tom Phillips uses to open this volume informs us that there will be ‘Life After Wartime’ and that there is more to be said about the effects of man-made disaster than just a record of statistical horror. Memory, accompanied by the ‘smooth-voiced reassurances’ spilling out of the radio, of course prompts ‘your almost / imperceptible jump at the sound / of a pamphlet shoved through the door’ and yet the roaring of a jet above the city is far above the everyday routine of those who try to continue their lives by looking at the ground; the ominous suggestion of ‘orange sky’, a convincing echo of the ‘orange fists / of passion fruit’ which open the poem, bringing our minds to bear upon that lethal mixture of Herbicide Orange (HO) and Agent LNX which was used with such abandon over Vietnam in the 1960s, is juxtaposed with an attitude of ‘Things never change’ and ‘People wear their silence like a caul. To bring them luck against drowning.’

Tom Phillips’s poetry is haunted by perspective: he looks back from one world to another and recognises not only the geographical contours which link who we are with who we were but also how some features of the landscape breathe an illusion of permanence. Whilst knowing that ‘Songlines map vast tracts down under’ (‘Changing the Geography’) he also recognises that life is personally felt or it is nothing at all and that ‘your tracks through town are just / the paths of habit.’ It is this recognition which saves his view of what can be seen from the Malvern Hills from tilting into neo-Georgian pastoralism. Those ‘untroubled streets / where nothing will change no matter what’ may well reflect the attitudes of those ‘whose fortunes remain, / whoever’s in the government’ (‘Not Really Climbing the Malvern Hills’). But in a world of shifting light, reminiscent of Charles Tomlinson’s ‘responsive stone / Changeful beneath the changing light’ (‘Winter Encounters’), Phillips is aware of the powerful attraction of straying. However, this movement does not take either him or us ‘completely off the map’ but allows us to recognise instead that that map can be re-drawn and that this form of recreation (re-creation) allows us to see it all ‘laid out in different light.’

Ian Brinton September 2012