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Review "She is the Sea: poems & essays"

Steve Spence

"She is the Sea: poems & essays",  Crab & Bee (Phil Smith & Helen Billinghurst)   Triarchy Press   (33 pages)

These poems and essays deal with the subject of psychogeography mainly in relation to coastal areas and certainly with the subject of the sea and of water in general (rivers) in mind. Phil Smith and Helen Billinghurst are visual artists and writers who use a variety of artforms to express their relationship with the landscape, whether through textural assemblages, paintings, photographs, essays or poems. Plymouth and its surrounding area is a central though not exclusive subject here and a particular project, relating to the idea of the labyrinth, bringing in Greek mythology as well as that of Albion via Gog/Magog serves as a starting point to a derive which involves a deep embracing of the environment, a ‘sinking into the underworld’ which relates the artworks produced along the way with the actual experience of a random (in terms of ‘going with the flow’) relationship with the outside world. Getting lost is clearly a part of the intention and this conjures up ‘parallels’ with such artists/thinkers as Richard Long, the Situationists, Andy Goldsworthy and Walter Benjamin, though in his case, of course, the city was the main location.

There’s an underlying philosophical approach to the world related to ecological concerns, heightened, no doubt, by current climate change issues, which is central to the projects of these artists and one which is suggested throughout the poems. For example:

          What You Don’t Do

          What you don’t do is what makes you
          And how you connect to it.
          Empathy is an organ that grows secretly
          Within the most surprising of uniforms,
          In thick skins and deadpan conformists;
          And it shrivels in frustrations with others,
          In cheated liberals and the mists of careers

                    (from ‘What You Don’t Do’)

There’s a strong sense of ‘letting go’ here, of the avoidance of agenda, of listening and observing and just ‘being’ in contrast to ‘getting things done’ or ‘being in control’ and while this may sound very laid-back and indeed ‘proto-hippy’ the paradox is that the work produced by this commune is very substantial and while it exists outside of the experience itself, as Artwork, in fact’ it’s the experiences along the way and the recording of such that are an invaluable part of the whole process. Chance encounters are an important aspect of losing yourself in the environment, outside of prescribed routes and established modes of conduct, we are open to new experiences and changed perspectives on the world. From ‘Incident’ we get the following:

          Did you say they were children?
          The light was odd, almost dusk, the playground had been busy
                  earlier, emptied
          now, we’d been staring at a
          hole in a tree… yes, children.
          I think we’d got confused by the watershed, the streams
          going off to different rivers, it was a time of crisis,
          nuclear treaties getting torn up, what was happening to the ecology,
          the light was very greyish brown and buttery, but they shone…

What’s most interesting about these ‘explorations’ or forays into the unknown is the way in which unexpected encounters can create skewed or unusual responses to our surroundings. The final lines from the poem above (‘Incident’) for example upend our normal expectations and end on a mysterious note – ‘a fairy story of children / giving sweets to strangers, and all arks wrecked.’

‘Plastic’ mixes science with ecological awareness and a sense of complicity but also adds something chilling in an almost magical narrative related to the ever-present nature of this manufactured product, something which will probably be with us ‘for ever’ – ‘I am a lurid, spiteful spook. / Animated by the air, I haunt margins everywhere: / I am a crisp packet swirling on a gust of wind.’ Later we have:

          Water was in me, now I am in water:
          Plastic, plastic all around
          Tory Brook, Plym and Tamar,
          Microplastic Plymouth Sound.

Which shows how far things have shifted from Coleridge’s time.

From ‘Gogmagog Speaks to Brutus’ we have an arresting opening – ‘you can fuck off back to Troy, / if you’re not serious enough to go / blind and gain the gigantic sense / that everything’s / gone frantically wrong!’. In ‘She is the Sea’ there’s a sense of the poem as puzzle, a mixing of the human with the natural world, an embracing of myth and history and an engagement with the ‘out there’ which is both perilous and energising, however full of predicament and uncertainty. This is adventurous stuff but it’s an odyssey at odds with the more common aims of exploration, which have historically been colonial and empire-building in aim. Here we have the feeling of being ‘out of our depth’ but not entirely uncomfortable with this reality, an acceptance alongside the more usual need to control and have dominance over the world:

          tonight she will launch the boat between the rock monsters
          slip away with a navy of dreams
          to the deep sea ocean trench
          where she can be just as she seems
          to herself
          the queen of the old ways

In the opening essay (‘from land through the deep to land again’) we have a declaration of intent which resounds throughout the collection – ‘we seek in our poetry the inconvenient and cussed things in the urban flow – rusting boats, bin bags caught in trees, the rhythm of an allotment – that work as creative inhibitions and poetic drags upon short-termist thrills and self-destruction.’


In the final poem, ‘What the Kelp Says’ we have repetition and (mainly) short lines which combine some neat poetic sounds – ‘Curl brine gurgle / Swarm rush bubble / Surge bait drench / Fronds’ – with a synaesthetic approach which merges everything and includes the lyric as well as the analytical. It’s an appropriate poem on which to end the poetry section of this chapbook, filled with contradiction and energy:

          Kelp is an aspiring mob
          Kelp is mindless violence
          Kelp is everything says Kelp
          Including its own nemesis
          Kelp is capitalism
          Kelp hangs out with rock
          Rock puts up with kelp
          Kelp thinks rocks are boring
          But sticks with rock for security

                      (from ‘What the Kelp Says’)

If the aim to “sink into the dark forest beneath our feet” is a tad hyperbolic or overly romantic it’s worth remembering our deep connection to our environment in these increasingly worrying times. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these poems and the related essays and will be looking out for other material from the authors.

copyright © Steve Spence, 2020

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