Salt, 2009, £12.99
Dotted throughout this memorable debut collection (in Salt’s now-familiar elegant hardback style) are a series of four very brief Hebridean Thumbnails.
The first reads simply (but very evocatively) “islands buried in the sky’s white sands”. And not only is it a good precursor of what is to follow, in terms of style, it’s also a good physical description of Andrew Philip’s poems. For ‘islands’, read ‘words’. For ‘sky’, read ‘page’.
Which is all a convoluted way of saying that Philip is a poet who writes just enough, and no more. Few of his poems appear dense, or try to pack too much in. Instead, they’re generally little archipelagos of words, a little bare and unadorned at first glance, but quickly giving up great riches of both sound and sense, and each with a subtly distinctive character.
Many of the best pieces concern Philip’s son, Aidan, who was born and died on the same day in 2005. There’s absolutely nothing inevitable about that, either – it’s all too easy to write honestly, but not terribly well, about such an emotionally devastating event.
But, to state the obvious (if you’ve read any of his poems), Philip does write very well. Here’s Lullaby, for example, in its entirety:
this is the arm that held you
this is the hand that cradled your cold feet
these are the ears that heard you
whimper and cough throughout your brush with light
this is the chest that warmed you
these are the eyes that caught your glimpse of life
this is the man you fathered -
his voided love, his writhen pride and grief
Now it’d be hard to be more emotionally honest than that, and yet at no time does it cross over into self-pity, or into asking the reader for sympathy. On the other hand, neither does it allow the very real tragedy to become a mere vehicle for the poetry – the shock of that line “this is the man you fathered” is a very quiet shock, and all the more effective for it.
Elsewhere, Scotland itself is a major concern, with Philip writing in Scots as well as English, but equally musically in both (The Meisure o a Nation was a particular favourite, with its surprising and sometimes funny juxtapositions). Sometimes, they cross over into each other, and you get memorable phrases such as “this caged / and blootered heart”.
Two of the poems from his HappenStance pamphlet Tonguefire (Man With A Dove On His Head and Tonguefire Night) appear here, and both, I think, demonstrate Philip’s very considerable poetic ambition. They’re genuinely mythological in their scope – that is, they conceal real truths within a fictional, perhaps even absurd, setting. That’s not an easy thing to do without looking ridiculous, or pompous, or both, which is probably why so few poets even try these days, but they’re right up there among the highlights here.
Finally, I hope I haven’t given the impression that, especially because of the subject matter, Philip’s poetry is unremittingly dark. Quite the opposite, in fact. He understands perfectly that loss and love are inextricably linked, and that neither can ever cancel out the other, and he conjures light seemingly from nowhere, from the debris and detritus of everyday life.
Nowhere is that better displayed than in In Praise Of Dust, a gorgeous love poem that (almost) closes the collection. It ends with:
On this of all days, let’s not forget
from dust we are
to dust we are returning. In between
our substance is less certain:
a trick of chemistry
and perhaps the light
from the black lamp that burns beside our bed
falling on your
muscle and skin.
That says more than I could ever hope to in a review. Go to Salt’s website, and buy this book and Rob Mackenzie’s now. You’ll be helping keep a very fine publisher afloat, but you’ll also be buying two of the collections (let alone debut collections) of the year.
EDIT: I've just noticed that the formatting has disappeared on that final extract. Apologies for that - I'm sure there's a way of getting it right, I just can't get it to happen just now!