Book Review: What Shape Sound by John Phillips

Posted: June 18, 2012 by Peter J in book review, poetry
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John Phillips was born in St Ives. He is the operator, from there, of Hassle Press, redoubtable poetry pamphlet producers for 14 American, Cornish, and French poets (cf CL blog tomorrow for Duncan Yeates, a pamphlet self-publisher, of Red River Poets).

John is the author of What Shape Sound, 110 pages of 92 blank verse poems – please find below a review for Cornish Lit.

What Shape Sound – ‘what shape is sound ?‘ ? –  I query the title, unsure of the sense, because, between this book’s covers, language takes on a deceptively casual precision – but if tis a question, we are not talking here about a question for signal processors or synesthesia sufferers.

This is words – with sharpened edges. Look at this, and be careful to not cut yourself on the not-not-not :

Look, the sky’s still there.
It doesn’t even
surprise you. As if
one day soon you will
not look up and see
nothing looking back
at no one looking.

(Look, the sky’s still there)

One comes to
places curious
like years ago
faces there
that never were

(One comes to)

Note the ‘recognizing’: this could be the return of the native to St Ives but also of the native bearing back with him the culture of a hosting metropolis, of the USA. But what of that recognition of what and who never was ? Rex non quondam futurusque . . . ? New faces . . . ? New places . . . ? Search me.

Although I hesitate to insinuate the usual clichés here, on reading it I more than once felt a (possibly mistaken) sense of place as in Vocative:


to blind



. . . a sense of the elements subjectively addressing themselves, which anyone who’s been for a hike out Hellesveor way on a rough day can perhaps visualise the more easily. I’m unaware of the name of the technical form of this poem – by all means let me know –  but it’s representative of What Shape Sound‘s compressed bursts of succinct text crackling from the white page, like vital bursts of speech crackling out from the white noise and static of a radio set. There are more adventurously typeset verses in comparable vein which I chickened out of quoting here. In a simpler layout, here’s a bewdy:

Language is
using us

reading it
self to

what we are
to say

(Language is)

“language is using us” . . .  “to see what we are” . . . enough, I fear, to send shivers down the spines of those of us non-cornuphone Cornubians who consider what that implies. Ah, Kernewek, now be still . . .

Language is . . . or isn’t . . .

. . . and yet – hope:

My daughter
writes me
a poem –
some words
she knows
on a page,
saying what-
ever she
for the sake of
hearing it


A triad. Sort of.

Language Is was the title work in John’s 2005 anthology. It was published by Sardines Press. I’m guessing that there’s a pun in that name. If there isn’t, there should be (sardines/pilchards have to be pressed free of oil, as they belonged to be in old village fish cellars with a gurt stone and a lever). Sardines Press is run by Roger Snell, who lives in San Francisco.

We are someone else
we don’t know is
looking for

So. Logic not merely chopped, but spliced into cables of craftily cantilevered semantic sleights-of-hand which leave the reader’s mind looking back out through the doorway it thought it had just come in through. In some ways this book is like a verbal Escher planar drawing. It retains a human element tho’. I recall reading some ekka’s opinion, mercifully I forget whose, that every one should make up their own poetry while shaving. What Shape Sound would’ve been extremely difficult to concoct while shaving, indeed would be tricky enough to listen to while doing so, but, although its razor edges are daunting – just like shaving – you’ll feel better for it afterwards.

What Shape Sound was published by poetry specialist Skysill Press in 2011.

John Phillips’ publications include Language Is (Sardines Press, 2005), A Small Window (Longhouse, 2005), Soundless (Punch Press, 2007) and Spell (Kater Murr’s Press, 2009). He runs Hassle Press and lives in St. Ives.

  1. […] Book Review: What Shape Sound by John Phillips […]

  2. […] publications include Language Is (Sardines Press, San Francisco, 2005) and What Shape Sound (Skysill Press, Nottingham, 2011). He work has appeared and been reviewed in a variety of magazines in this country, the U.S., […]

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