Poetry Parnassus: Phrase Book (United Kingdom)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It runs from June 26 to July 1, and features 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting one a day until they’re done, with my own additions for Wales, Scotland, and Palestine, which I think should be treated as countries.

Phrase Book, by Jo Shapcott (United Kingdom)

I’m standing here inside my skin,
which will do for a Human Remains Pouch
for the moment. Look down there (up here).
Quickly. Slowly. This is my own front room

where I’m lost in the action, live from a war,
on screen. I am an Englishwoman, I don’t understand you.
What’s the matter? You are right. You are wrong.
Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?

TV is showing bliss as taught to pilots:
Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small,
Secluded. (Please write it down. Please speak slowly.)
Bliss is how I was in this very room

when I raised my body to his mouth,
when he even balanced me in the air,
or at least I thought so and yes the pilots say
yes they have caught it through the Side-Looking

Airborne Radar, and through the J-Stars.
I am expecting a gentleman (a young gentleman,
two gentlemen, some gentlemen). Please send him
(them) up at once. This is really beautiful.

Yes they have seen us, the pilots, in the Kill Box
on their screens, and played the routine for
getting us Stealthed, that is, Cleansed, to you and me,
Taken Out. They know how to move into a single room

like that, to send in with Pinpoint Accuracy, a hundred Harms.
I have two cases and a cardboard box. There is another
bag there. I cannot open my case – look out,
the lock is broken. Have I done enough?

Bliss, the pilots say, is for evasion
and escape. What’s love in all this debris?
Just one person pounding another into dust,
into dust. I do not know the word for it yet.

Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
What does it mean? What must I do? Where
can I find? What have I done? I have done
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.

• ‘Phrase Book’ from Her Book: Poems 1988-98 (Faber & Faber, 2000), by permission of the publisher.

As per yeltnuh’s comment below, I will attempt a short blather on each poem. Please bear in mind that William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian of Dundee, is (in)famous for his bad poetry and therefore a fitting muse for this blog. Caveat emptor.

The clue to getting inside this poem is the title – Phrase Book. It took me a couple of readings to feel what the poem is saying, cloaked as it is in the artifice of those supposedly everyday phrases you find in such books. The narrator is a war refugee, a stranger in a strange land, navigating by the conventional phrases a peaceful country uses to signify the experience of foreign travel. Yet her reality keeps bursting through, sometimes deeply intimate, sometimes expressed in the phrases of her tormentors. This heartbreaking juxtaposition is the emotional drive shaft of the poem, overlaid by the irony inherent in I am an Englishwoman, and the differential treatment that implies.

Powerful stuff. I’m pleased that it tackles a difficult subject when a poem for a spin-off from the Olympics could have been a much more feel-good affair.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Parnassus: Phrase Book (United Kingdom)

  1. This is great! I’m so glad John Kinsella is representing Australia. Totally agree about Wales, Scotland and Palestine and I look forward to your additions.

    • I agree emphatically. Maybe we need our friendly neighbourhood poetmcgonagall to lead a discussion about these great poets from around the world?

      • Right you are. And there was me thinking it was going to a quick and easy feature. See the post for my addition. Another fine mess you’ve got me into…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s