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Image of Graphologies book cover

photo of Phil Cohen with Jean McNeil
Graphologies. Phil Cohen with Jean McNeil. Paperback ISBN 978-1-869848-02-6. £11.99. 18 July 2014.

This book is a deliberately hybrid text, the fruit of a partnership over many years between a poet/ethnographer and a painter who have mutually enriched each other’s understanding of the meaning of place. The book takes a line of thought for a walk across poetry and the visual arts, autobiography and  fiction, cultural and literary studies, exploring the hidden emotional and narrative hinterlands of the commonplace.

 The introduction outlines the rationale of its poetics, while the paintings, photographs, maps and other illustrations add an important dimension to the book, extending its  appeal to a wider audience.

The first part of the book contains a sequence of poems in which familiar objects, encounters, or relationships have in some way become strange or Other. The poems are counterpointed with paintings by Jean McNeil which invoke a sense of transient things arrested in the moment of their manifestation or eminent departure : a tide that is on the turn, a glimpse of a landscape from a train, a passing storm… She is attracted to elements of strangeness in these familiar scenes: an unusual light, surprising arrangements of shapes.  

This is followed by a series of short prose poems exploring the memoryscapes of a childhood in which intimate spaces of fear and delight become disembodied  as they are refracted through the trauma of the Blitz.    

The final part of the book consists of  a fictional memoir illustrated by a series of  no less fictional photographs. ‘Like as Not’ features the mysterious K, who might just be a refugee from The Castle or a close relative of Brecht’s Mr Keuner, or even the author’s alter ego. The eponymous hero recalls a journey of self-discovery as he explores the surreal landscape of his childhood and youth growing up in a  dystopian society of the future where ‘soapspeak’ and ‘knowgov’ are the only permitted discourses. The pervasive sense of personal dislocation, of a lack of concordance between the officially authorised map and the actual unfolding territory of a life here results in a series of phantasmagoric events culminating in a suicidal sea voyage.  

The sometimes hidden, sometimes explicit reference point for much of this work is the East Anglian countryside and coast where the authors  have both lived over the past twenty years, providing a focus for our various preoccupations with the liminalities of the commonplace.

Phil Cohen came to creative writing through the practice of ethnography and through the painting of his partner, Jean McNeil. He has recently published On the Wrong Track? East London and the Post-Olympics (Lawrence and Wishart) and a memoir, Reading Room Only (Five Leaves). His poems have been published in various literary and cultural magazines, including Agenda,Soundings and Critical Quarterly. Material Dreams,a collection of writing on memory and narrative is forthcoming from Palgrave,Macmillan. He is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London. Website and blog: www.philcohenworks.com.

Jean McNeil started to paint in her late thirties, studying at the Camden Institute, City Lit (with Cecil Collins) and Hornsey Art School (then Middlesex Poly). For the past two decades she has been inspired by East Anglian land and seascapes and now lives in Wivenhoe near Colchester. She has had solo exhibitions at the Wivenhoe Gallery; Les Livres and Digby Galleries, Colchester; the John Jones Art Centre, Dryden Street, Original and Highgate Galleries, London; and the Smee Gallery, Norfolk. Her work is in many private collections. Website : www.jean-mcneil.co.uk