Whip-hot & Grippy, by Heather Phillipson, Bloodaxe Books, £12 (softcover)
Long-time readers of ArtReview will recall a series of columns by Heather Phillipson in which the artist’s dog, Marj, featured prominently. It will come as no surprise to them that in this book, Phillipson’s fourth collection of poetry, caninekind appears variously as subject, cipher, guide and symbol. The presence of the hound is most notable in ‘more flinching’, a composition which unfolds over the final 69 pages of this volume (in part written and presented as writer-in-residence at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016). At times tender (‘I’ll make it up to you, darling, in dog biscuits / in the afterlife’), comic/visceral (… Do dogs / need to approach death / and back away from it / like I did when the vet injected / deep pentobarbital & his bowels / ejected across the floor tiles’) and philosophical (describing how humans ‘… perverted them / into a kind of inter-species loyalty / or the usual master-slave hierarchy’), this epic plays out in multiple poetic forms, both visual and linguistic.
The poet’s other overriding concern is the materiality of the body. This big lump of temporal stuff we are made of. ‘TRUE TO SIZE’ is a litany of analogies to geography, for example: ‘…thighs as mountains / hips as ridges / pubes as forests’. The longer poem ‘CHEERS!’ contains the lines ‘luckily / I’m up for body odours / when other forms of empathy are thinning’. Of course, once humans are reduced to pure physicality, the inter-special barrier looks more precarious – it’s all just flesh and hair after all, or, as Phillipson continues in ‘more flinching’, ‘we are also dogs / leashed to any body / that fetches & fucks us’.
One can find a lineage for Phillipson’s poetry in the feminist art canon and the female body as ground zero in the battle against patriarchal oppression. Carolee Schneemann evoked the corporeality of selfhood, particularly female selfhood, with her cat, Kitch, often central to the action (in Fuses, 1964–67, the pussy watches Schneemann and her partner have sex). In Beautiful Dog (2014), one of Joan Jonas’s many videoworks featuring her dog, the viewer sees a beachscape unfold from a four-legged perspective captured via Go-Pro (itself recalling the ultra weird passage in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, 1877, narrated from the point of view of a hunting dog). The animal in these artworks, and in Phillipson’s poems, becomes an object of love – a bonded part of the female protagonist – that is neither abusive nor the product of male union. This intermingling in Whip-hot & Grippy (that also regularly evokes animalistic eroticism and mysticism) comes to the zenith in a doublepage spread which, filling every inch of the pages with no border, starts ‘Stubbed toe. Locked door. Walked dog. Poured drink. Locked dog. Walked toe. Poured door. Stubbed dog’, remixing the same set of verbs and nouns repeatedly, creating a barked mantra abundant in taxonomical confusion.
First published in the May 2019 issue of ArtReview