Review | Whip-Hot & Grippy by Heather Phillipson

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    Whip-Hot & Grippy begins with a hyphen and ends with a personal statement, with the intervening 126 pages featuring advertising-speak, sex scenes, terrorism, broadcast media, consumption-anxiety, protest, and human-animal relations. Ian Macmillan described Phillipson’s debut Instant Flex 718 as a ’bucket of water in the face’, and Whip-Hot & Grippy — with its psychedelic cover of a cat ambiguously eyeing a seagull — similarly takes us into unusual territory. 

    The key to getting to grips with Whip-Hot & Grippy is to consider Phillipson as an artist working ‘in a variety of media including video, sculpture, music, large-scale installations, online works, text and drawing’. For Phillipson there is a great deal of overlap between forms: ‘whether it’s video editing or writing or walking between things in space, it’s about the rhythm between the bits. And the bits are always colliding with or repelling or rubbing all over each other, synaesthetically.’ The most important word is the last: synaesthetically. Phillipson is a poet who loves to stimulate the senses. Her poetry provokes sensory overload. It is a torrent, especially the long, journal like poems which are the highlight of the collection. It flows like a modernist stream of consciousness but also encompasses present-day ideas of technological overload, information overload and just plain old overload. Phillipson’s poetry is vibrant, glossy and weird. There is an awful lot to take in, but the audacity and ambition are undeniable.

    In a Phillipson poem the self is often in flux, like a camera switching point of view. ‘[O]ne minute you’re in first person then second person or third person, then slapped back into first.’ Phillipson is talking about video art, but this is also useful in relation to poetry, because she deploys this literary device. The sea-side poem, “Earlye in the Morning”, illustrates:

    The new ice-cream is complete-meal-replacement, frozen with a
    slightly gritty texture, available in selected waxy maize flavours. When
    asked if it’s delicious but poisonous, the ice-cream lady makes it very
    very apparent that it is, definitely. Looking at your intimate pix, she
    adds, “I’d be less offended if you’d served me a turd on a platter” and
    toots her horn approvingly, hitting her boot to the accelerator.
                                                  — “Earlye in the Morning”, Whip-Hot & Grippy, p.26

    The person seems to switch in the fifth line when the ‘ice-cream lady’ adds ‘I’d be less offended if you’d served me a turd on a platter’. This absurd remark seems more likely a line the speaker would slip to the ice-cream lady, since the ice-cream lady is the one serving, furthermore why is the ice-cream lady looking at the speaker’s ‘intimate pix’? Strange. Phillipson’s camera has rotated. Roles have been reversed, erased or re-arranged. The effect is startling, but before the reader has any time to digest, the ice-cream lady has already zoomed off.

    Phillipson shares a certain tonal anxiety and rebellious nature with mavericks like Marianne Moore, Rosemary Tonks and Edith Sitwell, the later memorably denied the charge of eccentricity saying ‘I’m not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people’ and in the next sentence compared herself to an electric eel. Phillipson’s poetry is more alive than most poets, but it is wilfully eccentric. Readers who favour simple, emotive first person narrative poems might find it hard to stomach. There are no poems about gardening. In terms of contemporary reference points, Phillipson’s love for long forms and ludicrous laugh out loud moments reminds me a little of Hera Lindsay Bird, though Bird’s jokes are closer to the surface. It is hard to say which poet is funnier. My favourite deadpan Phillipson line comes in a restaurant scene in “Splashy Phasings”: ‘Do you have any water / I’m sorry we’re out of water.’

    The second half of Whip-Hot & Grippy gives space to ‘more flinching’, a sequence of twenty three poems written during Phillipson’s residency at the Whitechapel Gallery, it merges the death of two dogs, one a military service dog the other a pet dog, presumably belonging to Phillipson. As far as elegies go, it is a markedly strange affair. ‘more flinching’ runs to 72 pages and incorporates pictures, walls of text and a giant exclamation mark. Originally published as a stand alone pamphlet, in the context of the collection as a whole ‘more flinching’ feels a little bolted on. It is innovative and daring but the strength in theme and the sheer length of the piece make it feel slightly disjointed from the rest of the collection, despite being in itself a fine and very interesting piece. 

    Whip-Hot & Grippy ends on “Personal Statement”, which quotes from Jean-Luc Nancy and Boris Pasternak,  and showcases a lot of Phillipson’s best qualities. Surrealist flourishes combine with questions of selfhood and random magic, ‘coherence is tyrannical’ Phillipson admits. ‘Personal Statement’ is the most revealing of the poems in the collection, ‘Where can I get off these tenterhooks’ she wonders. It is a poem of many questions, though the questions do not necessarily beget answers. As such, Whip-Hot & Grippy is a forward thinking assault on the present, a brave step into the unknown.

    Words by Charlie Baylis.

    Whip-Hot & Grippy
    , Heather Phillipson, Bloodaxe Books, 2019, 128 pages, £12.00
    For more information and to buy, visit Bloodaxe Books.


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