‘Phrase Book’ by Jo Shapcott was written in 1991 and is a nine stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Shapcott did not choose to imbue this piece with a particular pattern of rhyme, that does not mean the poem is without unity though. There are a number of moments of repetition scattered throughout the text.
For example, there are a few statements beginning with or including the word “This.” They most commonly appear at the end of a stanza and sometimes also include the word “room.” Stanza one ends with “This is my front room” and stanza three with “…this very room.” The word “room” appears at the end of a total of three stanzas as well.
The poem begins with the speaker comparing her skin to a body bag that will last for now. This speaks to the temporality of life itself, something emphasized to a great extent during wartime. The speaker’s observations in her living room, while watching TV change her whole perspective on life. Her relationships become more complicated and are compared to military tactics of used by pilots observing and tracking enemies. She feels tracked by these fighter pilots, utilizing radar systems and pinpoint accurate missiles.
All these experiences come together through fractured lines that are scattered with references to military terms and lines from a 1960s phrase book. Shapcott’s interpretation of this time period is not cohesive or completely clear. It is emotionally charged and speaks on the difficultly of understanding and maintaining human relationships during a fragmented time. Her language breaks apart, just like the world.
You can read the full poem here.
Before beginning this piece it is important to understand the context in which it was written. There is a bit of historical information needed to fully understand what is occurring in ‘Phrase Book.’ The poem takes place in the living room of an English woman. She is watching TV, specifically the coverage of the first Gulf War which occurred between 1990 and 1991. In particular, the poem is concerned with Operation Desert Storm.
Operation Desert Storm was a dense initiative put together by a US-led coalition of UN forces in an effort to help Saudi Arabia. The goal was to remove the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, an area that Iraq had invaded in the previous months. The operation included a five-week bombardment of Iraqi command centers and a ground invasion in February of 1991. The Iraqi forces were driven from the area and the resulting gulf in leadership left Saddam Hussein in power.
Shapcott is clear on her website that she was interested in raising “question[s] about individual, human love” and if that love is possible in a warring world. She makes this theme known through the confusing relationship the speaker has with experiences and lovers. The stanzas also speak on a larger impact of war, beyond the initial loss of life and land. Shapcott raises questions about the mental and emotional sacrifices those involved on the ground, and at a distance, have to make.
Content and Language
Shapcott explains on her website that a number of phrases from ‘Phrase Book’ come from a 1960s tourist book. These include “Am I disturbing you?” Or “ This is really beautiful.” One of the most impactful, and interesting lines, “Le me pass please. I am an Englishwoman” came from this source as well.
Additional resources provided on Shapcott’s site include information regarding the language of war and its accompanying acronyms. A few examples include, “Human Remains Pouch” meaning body bag, and “J-Stars” or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. Other examples in the poem will be elucidated within the analysis.
As stated on her website, it was Shapcott’s intention to craft a poem that was not one “continuous, realistic narrative.” She sought to depict real-world experiences in a fragmented and confusing way. There are a number of sources of information, all of which come into one’s mind at the same time. She adds that it was important for the language to “break…down under this pressure.”
Analysis of Phrase Book
I’m standing here inside my skin,
Quickly. Slowly. This is my front room
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that she is within her “skin.” At the moment, it is to her like a “Human Remains Pouch” or a body bag. This militaristic language is scattered throughout the poem, connecting each emotion and situation to a time of war.
where I’m lost in the action, live from a war,
Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?
It is in the second line that the vague reference to being “my front room” and “up here” are cleared up. The speaker is located within her own house, looking at her television. She is “lost in the action” of the war as it is streamed across the world to her. It is not entirely clear where she is located. She could be in England, considering she states that she’s an “Englishwoman” or perhaps she is located in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, America, or any other country with some involvement, direct or indirect, with Operation Desert Storm.
It is clear from the next lines that there is going to be a certain amount of distortion in the language. This is discussed in the Content and Language section above. Shapcott chose to make these lines hard to understand. It was not her intention to create a straightforward, easy to interpret narrative. Although the words themselves are simple, they arrive in a confused and seemingly misplaced order. The speaker says,
What’s the matter? You are right. You are wrong.
Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?
After reading through Shapcott’s own intentions for this piece, one can come to the conclusion that these are some of the lines from her “phrase book” from the sixties. These can be read as attempts to understand the war that is going on around her and/or at a distance. Either way, it is impacting her deeply. She’s having trouble making sense of the fighting and what place human communication has in it.
TV is showing bliss as taught to pilots:
Bliss is how it was in this very room
In the next lines, the speaker goes back to describe her immediate setting and what is going on on the television. She sees the TV showing “bliss.” This is an acronym that pilots use to remember how to evade enemy radar. The next lines contain the meanings behind each word,
Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small,
Just as the pilots use these words to interpret their environment, the speaker takes them on in an attempt to navigate hers. She explains that in her room, it was like “Bliss” as well. She states what this means to her in the next stanza of ‘Phrase Book.’
when I raised my body to his mouth,
yes they have caught it through the Side-Looking
In the next lines, she begins to explain a relationship she had with a man. The two have a number of confusing interactions that the speaker has trouble enunciating clearly. She speaks of how she “raised [her] body to his mouth” and how he “balanced [her] in the air.”
These two phrases are how she saw the situation, and relating it back to “Bliss,” the pilots did too.They “caught it through the “Side-Looking / Airborne Radar.” It now seems that the war has permeated her day to day life. She is using military language to understand her environment. It’s interfering with her normal experience.
Airbone Radar, and through the J-Stars.
(them) up at once. This is really beautiful.
The speaker adds onto the thought started in line four of stanza four with the phrase “through the J-stars.” This is a reference to the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, another way of tracking the enemy. Or, in the speaker’s case keeping track of the “Bliss” of this sexual encounter with an unnamed lover.
The next lines are clear examples in which Shapcott makes use of the tourist book from the 1960s. They are variants of different tenses and simplistic sentences one might learn when visiting another country. While tapping into this strained way of communicating, the lines continue to speak on love and men.
Yes they have seen us, the pilots in the Kill Box
Taken Out. They know how to move into a single room
The sixth stanza brings the words of the fighter pilots deeper into the love scene between these two people. She states that,
Yes they have seen us, the pilots in the Kill Box
on their screens
They are watching the lovers, as though they were the enemy. The men in the planes are preparing the routine of attack. Soon the speaker and her lover will be “Stealthed” and “cleaned” and “Taken Out.” These men are watching the lovers, ready to take them out whenever necessary. The world the speaker observes through her TV and feels in contemporary life whenever she leaves her home is seeping into her perceptions.
like that, to send in with Pinpoint Accuracy, a hundred Harms.
the lock is broken. Have I done enough?
The speaker discusses an apparent impending death without fear in these lines. She explains without hesitation how skilled the men are at scouting out a “single room.” They have “Pinpoint Accuracy” when it comes to attacking the enemy. They use “Harms” or High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles.
The next lines of ‘Phrase Book’ are some of the hardest to interpret. The speaker seems to be cataloging the boxes and cases around her and fighting with one in particular. She can’t open it, but then something changes and she can. Perhaps she forced it open after warning the listener to “look out.” The last line likely comes from the phrase book. She asks, “Have I done enough?” This question, like many of the others, is deeply complicated, especially when applied to one’s life, or one’s life in wartime.
Bliss the pilots say is for evasion
into dust. I do not know the word for it yet.
In the eighth stanza, the speaker poses an important question about life in wartime. She asks,
What’s love in all this debris?
She follows this question up with a dark answer. It is “one person pounding another into dust.” It’s not the love that reigns in peace, but it is just as strong. Its meaning is not entirely clear to her, nor is the word by which it should be called but it exists all the same. Death, destruction, and “Bliss” are the most important things to consider in wartime, or at least that’s the message she’s getting from the world.
Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.
The last lines contain a number of questions all of which come straight from the phrase book. They are meant to help one navigate an unknown landscape. Now, the speaker finds herself in one, but they are useless. Rather than helping her move through her life, they only make the understanding that life is more difficult. The last line is one of the most interesting.
[…] Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.
It brings up a whole new array of problems with the Gulf War, and with war in general. It speaks to an avoidance of consequences and privilege. This phrase, just like the others was featured in a book with useful tips to navigate one’s travels.