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Philippa’s life, has been one of extremes, always all or nothing, seemingly feeling its own way towards the book ‘that wrote the life the Magnum Opus, Involution. Almost from birth in South Africa she straddled a divide, her family genetically half British, half Boer (on both sides of that vehement political conflict) and socially half black and half white, which necessitated becoming adjusted to conflict and contradiction—but mostly comfortable with solitude and its requirement to make sense of things without instruction or much help. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a thrice removed aunt may have cast a spell or perhaps her curse of poetic narrative.
Ideas to make sense of it were found in books, and the inspiration of literature, theology and art. Choice was somehow never offered and when it was, everything was always better than something. At University five faculties were sampled before graduating in Psychology and Zoology. Later life, with a marine biologist husband, meant mangrove swamps in Mozambique fishing for supper, then the Max Planck Institute in Bavaria with Konrad Lorenz and the vitality of the new school of animal behaviour. This amalgamation of both study and experience was set alight by unsought spiritual revelation that cost the loss of everything and demanded a re-examination of all received opinion about the nature of Nature. Poetically narrated science was the result. Poetic narrative fiction, in A Shadow in Yucatan was a tribute to the girl to whom the true story happened, too universal for a short story, too mythological for prose. It was, however fictionalised and the (other) characters entirely created to reflect the time in which it happened.
Apart from the compelling demands of both these books, many poems and a collection of short stories are now awaiting publication. One was a finalist in Narrative Magazine Winter Short Story (2014) and has been selected as Story of the Week (07 28-2014) Philippa has raised four daughters, lectured to mature University students, built an arts centre, and lives in Somerset, with a long-suffering husband and an aged collie, which continues. Writing always came first.
on Nov. 26, 2014 :
One of the extended luxuries of reading a book - particularly a good one, but then, at my age, I (we) should know when to abandon the not-so-good - is writing a review: another blank page to dash with blush and beam; pastels afforded by the author - go on, s/he enthuses, five stars in all the colours of the rainbow...
And then along comes Philippa Rees, with A Shadow in Yutacán, and I feel very much like the amateur - where to begin? Where then when begun? Philippa Rees' A Shadow in Yutacán is the kind of book that... well, I've noted Dylan Thomas in passing but he was never this good - reviewer scuffs the clichés infesting the corners of his mind.
I am honestly at a loss. This - pardon me and every reviewer for saying so - is an absolute work of art. And heart. For, make no mistake, Philippa's heart is at the very core of this work - a work that would be a rank fail if not. We might then forget genre - how `winkingly' witty dear Bob Book-Jacket should inform us our "distilled novel fits no category... is not poetry..."
Poetry, then, is in the ear of the beholder? And persuasive, indeed, it is. I'm reminded of Arthur Quiller Couch:
"Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author's skill to give as on ours to receive."
Stephanie, the book's MC, who wakes "to a smouldering afternoon pregnant with thunder", via pregnancy both of the belly and naivety, comes full circle - and in fact recalls a literary character of my own creation; if only she could put brakes on the rumbling rails of life!
But, for me, the `book' transcends 1960s dreams damned to the frailties of reality; this is Blake's Innocence and Experience second-done. And this, to repeat the idea of being lost for words, as well as to offer the most audacious of paradoxes, is a flight in animation, where the beauty of Philippa's poetry becomes mute to the magical carpet-ride of Stephanie's sensitivities... Come on, then, dear animators, this is the one you've been waiting for! Remember what was done with Raymond Briggs' Snowman?
"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all," scoffs an Irish wit from spirit. What would he have made of this, though, eh? I do but wonder.
If I were limited to one question only, then it would surely be: `Philippa, how long did it take you to write A Shadow in Yutacán?' And yet I'd refrain, for fear of either answer.
`Not too long,' she smiles, `it is of my natural pen.'
Then I'll place down my own forevermore. Consolation being I'll order more - books! - I suppose.
`Actually, it was a real slog. A good two years.'
Mmm. Oh, why, by GOD, as I write, has it not yet been bestowed with the honour it deserves?
I will read A Shadow in Yutacán again. And again. And each time will be like the first.
This is a masterpiece.
(reviewed 6 days after purchase)
on Aug. 06, 2014 :
"But it is easier to think what poetry should be," John Keats remarked, "than to write it -- And this leads me to another axiom -- That if poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all." Philippa Rees is a poet as Keats would have liked: poetry comes to her naturally, abundantly, freshly, wonderfully. She is an outstanding poet. Her great gift is for the striking, even startling, image. Yet for me (and now I can slip into the easier mode of thinking "what poetry should be"), the attempt to use the lyric poem as a vehicle, or rather set of vehicles, in the construction of a connected extended narrative runs into real difficulty. Inevitably, I fear. As the Serbian-American poet Charles Simic has pointed out, the lyric and narrative forms are incompatible. For the building block of the lyric is the image, and the more striking the image, the more it works to arrest time. As a perception that pierces to the very heart of things, the image causes us to stop, to think, to feel, to attempt to integrate, sometimes simply to recover from, what we have just seen. The image subverts the very imperative under which narrative operates, that is to say, the necessity to keep up momentum. To the extent that imagery draws attention to itself -- as it should, perhaps -- it retards the flow of narrative. "A Shadow in Yucatan" is therefore something of a sticky story. Another gifted lyric poet, Derek Walcott, gradually abandons the attempt to write narrative (in his case epic) poetry in his immensely ambitious "Omeros", and allows the lyric, for better or worse, to float the poem. Ted Hughes, in his comic grotesque "Crow", probably the closest thing in poetry to a graphic novel, allows the separate poems to stand as separate panels. Philippa Rees has attempted to write a novella in lyric form, but the poetry tends to operate at the expense of the narrative. Nevertheless, read "A Shadow in Yucatan" for the poetry itself, and you can't go wrong.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)
on July 09, 2014 :
I came to Philippa Rees' writing via her blog, and from there to her magnificent Involution. This poem/novella, which was written before Involution, is a more personal and intimate theme than the grand sweep of the later work, but I can still see the genesis of that work in the intricate, finely drawn emotion, spirituality and sense of humanity and nature within this wonderful lament.
It is an ode to a lost age, lost innocence, the narrow visions of changing times but also to the broader, universal love between others - between women together in the world of childbirth and creation, between mothers and children, between the earth and those who walk upon it. Many passages are breath-takingly beautiful. Ms Rees is an accomplished poet. But more than this she delves into the very web and weave of life. Her words will stun you at times with deeper understanding, with epiphanies and relationships you can make between her story and your own life.
Her poetry and prose on childbirth is extraordinary - it links with the earth as a living, conscious entity, and displays Creation recognising and supporting other 'creation'. Here I particularly see the seeds of her thesis in Involution. But here I also see the universal within the intimate, the macrocosm in the microcosm, if you will.
I came upon Ms Rees' writing by serendipity I think, but such a wonderful discovery! I truly believe I am witnessing the rising of one of the greats. I am a fan forever!
(reviewed the day of purchase)