By Tom Jenks
There are certain points in life where we find ourselves looking back, taking stock, carrying out an audit of who we are and where we have been in the hope of finding out where we are going. For many people, the mid to late twenties, that awkward threshold between youth and experience, is just such a point. Giles Paley-Phillips’ debut collection Linear Hymns explores this curious and contrary terrain. It is written from the perspective of a twenty-something taking a backward glance which develops, over the course of the collection, into a rigorous and unflinching cross examination of things done and not done, words said and left unspoken. The overriding theme of this internal scrutiny is the narrator’s attempt to deal with the death of his mother from leukaemia when he was six years old, to “Capture a language…make it all rhyme.”
Linear Hymns is a multi-layered collection, part self-exploration, part threnody. It is split into three sections.
In the first section, The change, we find the narrator returning to his childhood. The collection is ushered in by the wintry, enigmatic figure of Dr. Zhivago, to whom the narrator desperately appeals for assistance:
“Dr Zhivago, please come and help her
I’m waiting on your call
Take your time doc,
we are the masters of patience.”
In The jewel encrusted panda sleeps alone, a child’s toy becomes charged with significance, taking on the characteristics of a votive object:
“Near to where the panda sleeps,
God goes to bed singing lullabies.”
Ultimately, however, these appeals prove fruitless and the narrator is forced to turn instead to memories as the only way to maintain a connection with his mother, as in the poignant Your last dance before Christmas:
“Bedtime draws nearer,
and you’re not here,
wish that I could see you,
dance one last time.”
The section ends, however, with a tiny grain of hope, a speck of light, where the narrator, in Leaving song, having lost, gives thanks for having loved at all:
“We have seen the beauty,
the walls have changed around us now
But I have seen the beauty.”
The second section, The pause, fast forwards to the narrator in later life, no longer a child but still carrying with him the things of childhood and struggling to make sense of them, to fit those ultra-vivid perceptions and searing impressions into his own personal topology. In Wooden pillow vacation, his confusion and pain mutates into anger turned inwards:
“ I want to punch myself in the face,
but I’m a pacifist…”
In Help the thief, we find him navigating the treacherous fathoms between internal and external realities which are in conflict, dealing with, like Eliot’s Prufrock, the requirement “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”:
“I’m considering having to smile
at the town of whispers,
then Walk around for a bit
and swallow my tablets.”
Leaving lights, the closing poem of this section, sees the narrator tentatively trying to get back on terms with the external world and deal with the emotional reperfusion inherent in this process, the process of becoming again “a person who needs to breathe”:
“Walked along the pathway
noticing the cracks
We avoid them for a reason,
we think they are bad luck,
maybe the ground will fall in
and swallow us all up.”
Life started yesterday (part 1), the opening poem of The warmth, the final section of the collection, takes this process a stage further. In this poem, the narrator reflects on what it means to endure:
“I’m reborn with the thought
that better is better.
The gift of what is left
is for our good behaviour.”
In this section, we see the narrator trying hard to open up, to make space into which another significant other may be admitted. In Forever and docile, his appeal is direct:
“Much and muchness
stand by me?
Sing a love song
to tame the bees.”
Alongside this process of reconciliation and adjustment, however, is a desire to hold on to the fragments that represent what once was. In Boo hoo, the narrator does so via the medium of ritual: “Place some flowers out near the parking lot, by a pair of stones.” In Two planes, he objectifies both himself and his mother in a poem that manages, despite taking as its central premise the reduction of two complex human beings to machines, to carry an overall sense of warmth and hope:
“2 planes cross the world together,
take care as they land together,
make your decision to watch or not.
In time our paths will meet.”
This theme is taken further in the final poem of the section which also closes the collection and brings the narrator full circle, back to where he began as a small child trying to find either rhyme or reason:
“I hear little angels filling
the wide, wide world apart,
now I’m the sleepy pillow,
who takes care of you.
So here I am,
as this little child…”
We take our leave of the narrator as an adult living very much in the present but still informed by his experiences as a child.
Throughout the collection, although the author is not averse to employing technical devices such as rhyme, both end of line and internal, when the occasion demands, the tone is naturalistic. Paley-Phillips poetic method seems in accordance with Orwell’s pronouncement, when talking about another literary form, that “good prose is like a window pane”. In Linear Hymns, the author’s presence is palpable but never intrusive. The complexities of his grief are raw and real and vividly realised, but are rendered in a controlled, almost Chekovian manner, which raises them above the level of raw emotional outpourings. The oblique, inscrutable titles of the poems form an intriguing counterpoint to this, adding another level of meaning and another layer of shade.
Linear Hymns is the frank and bravely told story of a young man’s journey along the thoroughfares, down the byways and in and out of the cul de sacs of love and loss. It is a privilege and a pleasure to walk alongside him.
All proceeds from the sale of this book are going to Leukaemia Research. To read more about the collection and about Giles, visit his web site at www.gilespaleyphillips.co.uk