[REVIEW] “A Profound Sense of Growth: Phill Provance’s A Plan in Case of Morning” by Quenntis Ashby

{Written by Quenntis Ashby, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Phill Provance, A Plan in Case of Morning, Vine Leaves Press, 2020. 78 pgs.

Editors’ note: This title will be available for pre-order in September 2020.

Phill Provance, A Plan in Case of Morning

Phill Provance’s A Plan in Case of Morning is a debut collection by a gifted poet who knows the form well: easily negotiating between the look and the sound of his work. The poems are well worth re-reading, and many of them beg to be read out loud. The reader will be well-rewarded for doing so.

The book’s well-crafted autobiographical poems are divided into three parts: the narrative arc echoing and describing the speaker’s journey of departure, initiation and return. Each poem pushes the reader further along this journey. Throughout A Plan in Case of Morning, we are presented with the speaker’s exploration of various identities: as student, as friend, as father, as lover, as poet and as son. These various identities build on each other to express personal development and profound realisation.

This collection resonates strongly with me personally as a man who is also trying his best to be many things to those around him: my spouse, my children, my students, my colleagues and friends and my muse. Throughout all these challenges that life gifts to us, it is the writing of poetry that saves us from ourselves, making us all the better for having written it.

In “Part I: Going Out,” the wide-ranging poems are humorous and quirky, delighting the senses with subjects ranging from mannequins, to communicating platonic love, to the sensuality and sins of the physical body, to past history and math lessons made present and experiential, to the surreal fantasies and daydreams that leave the speaker not only cold and alone, but bruised and wiser for the bruising.

The poems here often turn and surprise the reader towards the end, pushing for a re-reading to appreciate the flow and sound of words that repeat in circular reasoning, pleasing the ear with wordplay and well-realised assonance. The most striking example of this comically circular reasoning is a stanza from “A New Kind of Vegan” where the speaker says, “Lettuce is mostly water. Water is / mostly air. Most things are / mostly this way.” Yet, in the next poem, “Magdalen College,” the speaker muses, “the rest of the world will go / on and on and on / in its monotonous monotone drone / as if you have lost nothing.” It is here that the first part turns to more serious internal matters. The reader is then prepared for the more introspective “What I Said to Her Was Not a Lie.” It is in this poem the speaker realises he has lost someone very precious—a sacred love, a part of himself.

In the longer and meatier “Part II: Going Under,” we become aware of the complexity that comes with growing older. Past memories, thoughts, actions and experiences are excavated through a wide-range of subjects: childhood, imagining a future old age, being a troubled teenager, family, horror, religion, death, time and (in the end) a small glimmer of dishevelled hope. These are confessional and mature musings. Gone are the quirky flights of fancy and the carefully structured wordplay in tightly controlled stanzas, as in the poems from the first section. These complex and usually longer single stanza poems paint a brutally honest picture of addiction, loss, anxiety and depression. The speaker digs deep with ever-deepening realisations of his own mortality and his seemingly small inconsequential place in the world.

There are a series of enlightenments, such as in the last few lines of “Now”: “That’ll be me: / too young / to think, / too old / to live / on fables.” These profound moments of self-awareness occur frequently in Part II. In “The Stenographers Union,” the speaker asks, “But aren’t we / the generation of hard luck and broken parts”; and in “Hard to Say,” “We are all / so tiny in our own tiny lives / that it’s hard to say / anything.” Yet there is hope for the speaker— it is in “The poem is,” when he comes to understand that poetry is the thing that will always save him, “Now and then, / again and again— / when nothing’s left, / the poem remains.” And it is in one of the following poems that the speaker remembers his departed college roommate in a long fragmented elegy in three parts. “The poem remains” even though his roommate has left, with the speaker wisely observing “life is longer than you think / and shorter than you know.” This contemplation of death continues until the last poem about a dandelion whose life “has no use” and which “ignores / all Darwin’s rules.” It is this stubborn will to live and reproduce that the speaker admires and accepts as the right path to follow.

“Part III: Coming In” starts with the speaker confronting his muse directly and critically with the weight of an anvil on his chest “because I pissed away every ounce of human affection, / chasing this thing called writing, which I now know / is nothing but pain,” to which the muse replies, “why cast your eyes after what you’re without? … / Suppose what you write is some other kid’s saviour: / who then could call it a senseless endeavour? / For that’s why I’ve helped you and why I remain.” The speaker then prays with an increasingly strong and masculine voice over the course of five poetic stanzas before presenting a short epigram for his son. “Given the Day” is a lyrical, long-line poem of thanks that could almost end A Plan in Case of Morning, yet Provance continues to redefine himself as worth saving: as the speaker in “Of Beauty & Things” pleads, “let us save all the perfect things, / … / but also may we save / a few small, imperfect things.” It is in the final poem, “Valediction,” that the speaker says a final farewell, admonishing the reader and himself to be grateful and graceful in the enjoyment of life, to not be a thief or a collector.

There is much to admire in this debut collection from an accomplished poet. The poems that make up A Plan in Case of Morning work well on their own, and yet somehow feel part of something bigger and profound. There is an intimate and inspirational sense of growth and self-realisation that I believe will ultimately resonate with many readers. I highly recommend Provance’s work.

How to cite: Ashby, Quenntis. “A Profound Sense of Growth: Phill Provance’s A Plan in Case of Morning.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Aug 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/24/morning/

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Quenntis Ashby is a ‘scatterling’ of South Africa living and loving in Taiwan since 2003. He articulates his passion and love for language as an author, a poet, and an editor. His professional performing arts career continues to influence his body of words, often feeling as though he is a poem pretending to be a poet.

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