Jan Napier, In The Hollow of the Land editor, shares her thoughts on Phillips’s poetry and the experience of working on the collection.
Glen Phillips was born in 1936 in the mining town of Southern Cross, within the WA wheatbelt. He and his family lived in various towns within this region. It was this early sense of connection and an increasing curiosity about, and interest in, its landforms, flora and fauna, which prompted a life long empathy for the region, as well as providing significant source material for later works.
In 1951, Phillips’s first published poem, ‘Wild Camels’, appeared in his school magazine. Almost seventy years later in 2018, John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan launched In the Hollow of the Land, Phillips’ collected poems, at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writing Centre. Kinsella said of the collection, ‘the poems of different landscapes and even language and different points in time are interwoven so they create a dialogue across time and space. This is an essential critical and political choice of presentation and questioning of what a single poetic voice is and can be.’ (Kinsella and Ryan)
This magnum opus brings together four hundred of Phillips’ best pieces. These works explore the physical and metaphysical topographies and ethnicities that make up the Australian, Italian and Chinese cultures. The author’s deep sense of engagement with each of these very different nations and their respective geographies and culture, has resulted in his personal immersion in both the Mandarin and Italian languages. This deeper ‘seeing’ has permitted Phillips to produce syntactically accurate and engaging poetics (such as ‘LaCapraia’ and ‘Wo Si Gu Wo Zai’) in two philological areas separate from his birth language.
The presentation of this book is markedly different from the usual format of poetry publications. The first thing readers will notice is the foldout endpapers in both volumes. Inscribed upon each is one of a suite of four embedded poems about Wolfe Creek Crater (or Kandimalal in the Djaru and Walmajarri languages), written after Phillips and his daughter Perdita, visited the site.
The author has also chosen to alleviate the textual density of the book by inserting one of his acutely observed pen and ink sketches after every thirty poems. Poetic subject matter and accompanying image seldom mesh. However, instead of promoting a sense of disunity, this randomness somehow has the effect of endorsing, even accentuating, Phillips’s openness of approach to the several traditions and cultures of which he writes.
Dominique Hecq, in her foreword, notes that while Phillips is not a disciple of any literary school or movement in particular, ‘a poetic affinity with T.S. Eliot, Randolph Stowe and Francis Webb’ (3; vol. 1) may be discerned by the perceptive reader.
Indeed, the title poem ‘In the Hollow of the Land’, is itself dedicated to ‘Viv’s boy’ (Eliot) and displays Eliot’s manner of alluding to experiences or events both current and bygone, which Phillips has interwoven with contextualising query and strong visuals in the imagist tradition.
the twinkle of something in the dust. Relic
of a fading star, this battered pocket watch, unstrung. (15; vol. 1)
Phillips also echoes Eliot’s ‘incantatory element’ in his works, with numerous pieces possessing an intrinsic musicality which renders them polyvalent. This melodic fall of language is characteristic of the author’s writing and helps to render his work stylistically distinct.
Free verse, tanka and the villanelle are among the poetic forms utilised by Phillips in this collection. There are also many settina. This a form invented by the writer, and amply demonstrates his fascination with language and wordplay. The settina (sette is Italian for seven), consists of stanzas of seven lines each containing seven syllables. The initial word of each line is then used in reverse order as an end-word for each line, as in the excerpt below:
Wild Strawberries: Lago di Como
Summer in the Alps has come
with warm winds in this valley.
Green glint of chill melt-water
shows Adda’s winding ways; shows
waters searching to leave green
valley for blue to join with,
come down to, Como’s summer. (74; vol. 1)
As would be expected in any compilation of works spanning half a century of literary musings, the subject matter of the poems in this collection is as diverse and disparate as the countries in which they are set. However, it is the love poems which predominate. The birthday poems, scattered throughout the pages are celebrations directed to Phillips’ partner Rita Tognini (who has been receiving them for over fifty years), and create their own narrative sub-text. Other poems acclaim the natural world (dust storms, snowfalls, flowerings, moonlight, and so on). Human interaction or insights concerning environment are also celebrated. The poems explore the gamut of human experience.They range from the affirmative, as characterised by such pieces as ‘Awakening’,
but full of light now the flower
seems to smile shyly (241; vol. 1)
to the more regretful tone present in ‘Bloody Old Almond Tree’,
Now black clouds come from the west.
blowing a gale with sharp cold showers
machine-gunning beauty to the turf. (98; vol. 2)
as the writer acknowledges seasonal change and equates it to the cooling of emotional bonds within a relationship.
At times there seems to be a fusion of internal tension between the content of a specific work and the author’s intended conversation. This is perhaps most evident in the wheatbelt corpus where the reader is often afforded a glimpse of Phillips’ awareness of the negative impact of non-Indigenous incomers on this environment, and the ongoing consequences thereof.
Editing a collection comprising approximately four hundred poems was never going to be easy. Why Glen Phillips asked me to help him with such an important project as his collected works, I still don’t know. However, I was not about to refuse the chance to work with one of poetry’s most respected elders.
I was extremely fortunate to be working with someone that possesses apparently endless reserves of patience, good humour, knowledge and energy. That said, the job itself was a steep learning curve. I learned a great deal about grammatical niceties, spacing, and formatting. Glen also introduced me to the intricacies of cover design, an intriguing study in itself. After eighteen months of seemingly endless revisions, corrections, changes and concerted effort, In the Hollow of the Land was finally completed. And my life felt emptier.
In the Hollow of the Land chronicles one man’s journeyings. It does so with great honesty, compassion and an engaging curiosity about the world in which we live. What shines through here, is Phillips’ willingness to engage in a continuing dialogue of positivity and awareness sans frontiers.
Kinsella, John and Ryan, Tracy. ‘On Glen Phillips’ Collected Poems 1968-2008 In the Hollow of the Land.’ 7 July 2018, Katharine Susannah Prichard Writing Centre, Greenmount, WA. Launch Speech.
Jan Napier is a Western Australian writer. In 2004 Jan published a collection of humorous short stories, Smiles To Go. This was followed in 2005 by a second collection All the Fun of the Fair. Between 2009 and 2012, Jan was in house reviewer for on line sci fi/fantasy journal Antipodean SF. Her first poetry collection Thylacine was launched in 2015. In 2018 Jan’s poem ‘Joondalup Line’ was shortlisted for the ACU Poetry prize and one of her haiku was accepted by American journal frogpond.