Jo’s poem ‘Phrase Book’ is currently in the OCR's GCSE poetry anthology. Teachers and students have been writing in with questions, so here are some thoughts about the poem, in case they help.
1. The poem ‘Phrase Book’ was written in early 1991 in response to Operation Desert Storm, part of the First Gulf War.
2. The poem is from the point of view a woman looking at the news footage from a war on her TV. She lives in a country at a distance from the war (probably the UK, though it is not mentioned in the poem).
3. Many of the phrases in the poem are taken directly from an old, 1960s tourist phrase book: e.g. ‘Please write it down. Please speak slowly’ and ‘Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.’ (Yes, this was really found in the phrase book!)
4. Other phrases are taken from the technology of warfare circa 1991:
Human Remains Pouch = Body Bag
BLISS = an acronym taught to pilots to help them remember how to evade enemy radar (the words BLISS stands for are listed in the poem)
SLAR or Side-Looking Airborne Radar = a form of military radar
J-Stars = Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System
Kill Box = the target area for weapons fire
Stealthed, Cleansed, Taken Out = euphemisms for killing people
Pinpoint Accuracy = precise aim at a target (the claim that pinpoint accuracy was possible was certainly overestimated in 1991)
Harms = High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles
5. The poem is not written as a continuous, realistic narrative: it tries to represent the fragmented experience we all have of the world, with pieces of highly charged information flying into our brains from many sources. Language itself breaks down under this pressure, sentences shrinking into short staccato questions, by the end.
6. The poem raises a question about individual, human love: is it possible in a world where war is taking place, however far away? As part of this, all the references to passion are distorted - e.g. she’s not sure if an intense experience actually happened (lines 13-14), and later, in phrase book language, she’s uncertain of the number of lovers involved and, finally, seems to feel that conflict - even at a distance - destroys the possibility of love.
FAQs from teachers and students
“We are intrigued as to which country the speaker in the poem is located - England? Iraq? Elsewhere?”
See 2, above.
“Who is the "gentleman" or "gentlemen"? Why are they visiting?”
See 6, above. In addition, there is supposed to be a little, gentle humour, here - there are some dramatic shifts of tone in the poem and this is one such place.
“Why is the speaker in the poem stating ‘I am English woman’ then later ‘I am an English woman’?”
Good spot! That’s a typo in the anthology - it should be ‘I am an Englishwoman’ both times. I follow up with sorting this out.
“Are her cases because she needs to escape from a place of danger? Is the bag referred to literal, metaphorical or both?”
The bags, cases and boxes are metaphorical, for the speaker herself, though they are suggestive of forced migration. These lines, 26-28, are also genuine phrases from an old, tourist phrase book.