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Book Review: phobiaphobia by rob walker

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There’s something special about a chapbook. Cheap, themed, easily absorbed and focused, it’s kind of a yummy poetry snack that can leave the reader deliciously hungry for a little more (Please, sir…). The phobia is a rich source for poetry, not only because it draws on our universal and deep seated fears and therefore provides a hotbed of imagery and intensity, but also because it can be quite funny. As is always the case with rob walker’s work, the relationship between horror and humour is handled exceptionally well.

As the title suggests, phobiaphobia is a chapbook that focuses on the phobia in all of its psychological absurdity and glory. Some of the phobias that walker explores include the fear of the figure 8, “octophobia”, fear of poetry “metrophobia”: fear of knees “genophobia” (or is that fear of genuflecting), fear of glass: “nelophobia”, fear of words “verbophobia” (not my problem), fear of the telephone “telephonophobia” (might have this one), and the very real fear of losing one’s slight or “scotomaphobia”. Even the silliest phobias are treated in a way that packs a powerful punch. For example, “Sesquipedalophobia” or the fear of long words:

u don’t need them long words.
u can say all you need.
Shun big books.
Keep it all not hard

the real stuff is all
small” (10)

Other poems hint at phobias, such as “Anorexic depression,” which is a kind of fear of food (or fatness):

when you returned from
hospital we hugged.

Your colour / calories / smile having
just drained away

your birdcage chest a
cylinder of fragile
wishbones (11)

Like many of the poems in this book, it packs a huge punch with a small number of words – the longing, sadness, and helplessness of a paternal figure with an ill child all mingling. Other poems are simply wry, and don’t evoke any other emotional response, such as the iconic “Poem for a verbophobic v.9.3”:



Or the reworked version of "Three Blind Mice", which comes out as “Perspective of the agriculturalist’s suriphobic, scotomaphobic spouse”. Even at his lightest though, walker always provokes the reader. Most of the poems push deeply, looking at the way we turn private tragedy into public hunger, as in “Pre-dated”, or how we might help a friend in pain (“Bipolar grief”). Some of the poems come from walker’s other collections, sparrow in an airport and micromacro, which is good, because those whose appetites have been whetted by this chapbook will find plenty more elsewhere in full length collections. Even in the 24 pages of this chapbook, however, readers will find that walker touches on the full spectrum of human frailty. This is a book that takes us through our many fears, both realistic ones, and those that poke fun at the many strange habits of the modern human. This is a powerful little collection full of quirky introspection, original and intense imagery, and lots of pithy black humour.

by rob walker
Picaro Press
2007, ISBN 9781920957353, paperback (chapbook format), 24pages

Autographed copies of the book can be ordered directly from walker’s website: www.users.bigpond.com/robwalker1/phobiaphobiaOrders.htm, or via the Picaro Press online store: www.picaropress.com

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.