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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Cover of The Failure of the Moment
Kate Caoimhe ArthurThe Failure of the Moment
Living Weapon, Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Faber) £10.99
Should poetry respond to current crises, or is its job always best practised in the long gaze backwards? It is a surprise to find here poems about coronavirus bereavement (‘Prelude’), the death of George Floyd (‘Screens’), and Brexit (number three of the ‘Trinidadian Triptych’). But the third installation of Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s trilogy (preceded by The Ground (2012) and Heaven (2015) is in conversation with a vast cast of historic forebears who enliven Phillips’s examination of the meaning, morality and musicality of poetry, his ‘living weapon’. Wordsworth, Donne, Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Arvo Pärt, Orpheus and Milton all step in to commend, argue with or bear witness to Phillips’s meditations, and he is an eloquent and persuasive converser.

At the heart of the collection, and among its most delicious mouthfuls, is a scattering of sonnets. They display deft sonic footwork: rhyme is repeated and modulated by the gear-change of internal vowel-
sounds, sending the poem off in a subtly different direction. ‘[T]he first fissions / Finally arriving at the listener, / Who makes sense of it sooner or later’ (‘The Peacock’). ‘Night of the Election’ describes the moment in the 2016 American election when ‘A sad irrelevance [was] now relevant’ and its immediate effect on language: ‘The words became a thing looked at, not read.’ He invokes ‘Seamus Heaney’s poem’, at first assumed to be ‘The Cure at Troy’; the failure of the moment is the failure to make hope and history rhyme. Instead:

In the poems place an oyster
Appeared on a plate: languid, the colour
Of vanilla, moist fennel, raw silver,
Crushed hay, sunk ships, quince and Jupiter.

Heaney’s own ‘Oysters’ is invoked, in which he is ‘angry that my trust could not repose/In the clear light, like poetry or freedom’ and which ends with his desire to be ‘verb, pure verb’.

This is also Phillips’s purpose in language, and poetry is a ‘living weapon’. Luminous, moving, the poem makes a claim for the value of poetry in dangerous times. The collection is at its best here, but memorable moments are also to be found in ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’: ‘I swept away the heaps of broken glass/But I don’t know where they went after that.’ It’s a weapon to be used in self-defence, as in ‘Mortality Ode’ in which the observational power of the cell phone is wielded in the moment of threat, when four police officers enter the phone repair shop in which the speaker waits. ‘I open my phone’s camera/To sneak a picture of them/Because it’s four cops in a cell phone store’. The description of the secretive and roundabout way of capturing them on camera without causing fear and inciting violence, has something to say about the circumlocutions poetic language take in capturing its subject and making it the speaker.

The collection is bookended by two long prose poems; the first, ‘1776’, describes the view of New York from the top of the Freedom tower, and the descent to the ground of a winged creature who observes the city in its resting moments, when a murmuration of starlings can be watched, for example. It is not immediately obvious that they are poems, Phillips is a respected non-fiction writer. The concluding prose poem, ‘Portrait’, is also a loving observation of a city, this time Barcelona, in peregrinations from the familiar tourist spots to the outskirts. As Jeremy Noel-Tod admits, the simplest definition of a prose poem is ‘a poem without line breaks’ and Phillips claims in an interview that he wanted to see how far he could push poetic form. It is not an experiment that worked for me, although there are moments of engaging tempo. ‘The taxi is all mine now. I roll my window down’ – which, it should be noted, uses a line break for effect. ‘Flight is like untying the air itself, fold after fold and layer after layer’. These poems left me longing for the lyric that could still be in there.

This review is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

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