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Friday, 27 June 2008

Andrew Philip: A Sampler

A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow, a man without his wife a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died? – P F Thomése

I've finally got myself a decent copy of Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. I have an old clapped out tape lying around somewhere but it's been years since I gave it a listen. I have several CDs by his brother Roger I tend to listen to more, purely because my first port of call when I'm looking for some music to listen to is my bookcase full of CDs rather than my bookcase full of tapes. Bit by bit I'm replacing the tapes that I've worn out but it's a time-consuming task.

Eno's album is beautiful. Just take a break and listen to 'An Ending (Ascent)' here. It lasts 4 minutes 11 seconds. The images in the video, although nothing to do with the moon flight, are more appropriate to what I'm going to be going on about.

Wasn't that lovely? Anyway, this isn't a post about music. I will break down and write one someday but not today I don't think. What I wanted to write about today is a guy called Andrew Philip. The Scottish publisher, HappenStance, has just brought out a sampler of this guy's work having previously published his chapbook Tonguefire which is now out of print. So, having enjoyed his blog for some months, I thought I'd give his sampler a go. Very adventurous of me but it was only £2.50 and what can you buy for £2.50 these days? Actually quite a lot if you shop wisely but that's not the point. I bought the damn thing. Right? Signed and everything it was.

The sampler includes the long poem 'Tonguefire Night' from his previous chapbook as well as a small group of poems about the poet's son who died shortly after birth. This didn't put me off. I'd recently read the Dutch author P F Thomése's book, Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss about his daughter who died in infancy which I'd … enjoyed is not really the right word, ensomethinged, en-something-like-sadden-ed? Isn't English so awkward sometimes? I'd empathised with the writer's plight. That doesn't sound right. This is why we need poetry.

But sometime even the poetry isn't enough. Andrew Philip's sampler is a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense our of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.

The first thing I should mention is that it feels nice in your hands. It's printed on decent quality paper and the pages are as thick as the cover so, for something so thin, it has an unexpected and welcome solidity.

(Okay, an aside: I hate long poetry. I get bored with it; so much of it goes on and on and on and I lose what little patience I have. Anything longer than a page and I probably won't even look at it. I accept this is pretty narrow-minded of me but I've never been able to get over it with a couple of exceptions: 'Tam o'Shanter' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', but they're just stories that happen to rhyme as far as I'm concerned. I've tried but I just start nodding off. Literally!)

So, I was worried about the opening poem but I thought I'd give it a go and lo and behold is it not really six little poems all masquerading as a long poem? At least that's how I coped with it. And they told a story too. Perfect. I could handle that. All the others were of a manageable size.

There are seven poems in the collection but because of the way the first one is laid out it feels like more. I'd like to say a bit about each of them.

'Tonguefire Night'

In this poem we are introduced to the character of MacAdam. 'Mac' or 'Mc' in Scots Gaelic means 'son of'. This reminded me of the Hebrew 'ben 'adam' which means 'son of man' so, from the off, I wondered about the identity of the man here especially when the poem opens with:

MacAdam rakes up the tongues
of men, women and a handful

of angels from where they've fallen

Was this going to be a religious poem? Reading on this didn't look like the case so I suspect that the name was picked to identify MacAdam as Everyman, just a guy who happens to be raking up his leaves.

The first thing that might trip up a reader is the word 'cowps' which is a Scottish expression for 'tips'. It can be a noun too: a coup is a rubbish tip. This is the first of a handful of Scottish words that appear in this poem but the context makes their definition fairly obvious.

Philip is also not beyond inventing new words where English and Scots is not enough for him, e.g. 'speechgifted' and 'mouthwaters'. Normally I don't have much time for these neologisms but I didn't find his use of them intrusive or unnatural. He just uses a broader pallet than most of us.

What happens to this Everyman is that he hears a 'bairn' (a baby) cry and, on investigating comes across 'a baby made of glass'. Is this a parable, an allegory or … well, poetry?


This is a poem in memoriam Aiden Michael Philip. I wondered about the definition but since 'the universe' gets a mention I went to look it up:

…a hypothetical region in space in which gravitational forces cause matter to be infinitely compressed and space and time to become infinitely distorted…

I can't imagine a more suitable image for a child prematurely taken. I love the image of a child as a 'little hoard of brightness'.


This is a simple poem that describes a father in parts, his arms, his hands, his ears, his chest. It is a straightforward and effective portrayal of the way a child sees its father but the most beautiful line is

this is the man you fathered

which is a total reversal of the meaning of the verb. I could see Dylan Thomas coming out with a line like that.


This is an odd little poem, splattered all over the page. No, not 'splattered' – exploded! It begins with this image:

This quartered world
                                                   stunned into mourning
                    for itself

which makes me think about how someone might feel after watching an explosion, especially as explosion that involved someone they loved, where there is nothing left but a crater and you find yourself frozen in the moment.


The web page of the The Saxifrage Society describes the genus Saxifraga and its relatives as "the best plants in the world". It says:

The genus Saxifraga is very extensive, comprising a wide range of perennial plants, many of which are alpines. They are found throughout the greater part of the temperate and sub-arctic zones of the northern hemispheres with outposts in places such as Ethiopia, Mexico and the Arctic.

Some of them look jewels but I suspect it's the fact that it's a hardy plant that inspired the lines:

seed that shows how slight is the sustenance
a life can grow from

It is perhaps an obvious metaphor but it's one that's handled well.

'Dream Family Holiday'

I read this poem over and over again. It is a puzzle which I think I've worked out. The key is the word 'dream' and this is where it pays to read the back of the book where it says:

He now works part-time for the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of Hansard and lives in Linlithgow with his wife and daughter.

and a bit further down the page:

Aiden Michael Philip, the poet's son and first-born child, died shortly after birth in 2005.

So, how is the opening line of the poem possible?

we were together, the four of us;

Like I said, I think I've got it sussed but I'm not going to spoil it for anyone else.


This is the poem most people will struggle with and the one I might have changed if I were editing this collection. Only it is not a collection, it is a sampler and, as such, the poem has its place because it does demonstrate the poet's range. It's just that most people will struggle when faced with lines like:

an the deid bide anent us in wir kitchen,
their whisperin vyces a souch a pain,
a seasonless smirr on the gless.

Just because I'm Scottish doesn't mean I didn't have a wee bit of a fight with it myself. A coronach incidentally is the lamentation or dirge for the dead that accompanied funerals in the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland. So it is perhaps the most appropriate poem to end the sampler with.

When I sat down to read this collection I decided to put on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as background. It's not something I usually do when reading and frankly I never sit down with the express intention of reading an entire collection of poetry. It worked perfectly though and actually helped me focus on the feelings that are in these poems. I'd recommend something quiet and relaxing, maybe something by Pärt or Vaughan Williams or pretty much any of Eno's ambient works.

As a poet myself I'm inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they've always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip's poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can't read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. This is why I think the music helped me. It slowed me down. Like floating through space. A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.

Would I recommend this sampler? Unequivocally. He has a way with words which I would suggest is the most important criterion for being a poet. It's not dear. And seriously don’t let the Scotticisms put you off. It'll be your loss if you do.

You can get your copy here.



Oh, dear. I was going to let the Scotticisms put me off. Not that it does not sound like an excellent collection, but that I'm a un-Scotticised American. Or something like that. Nonetheless, I will be purchasing and reading this. It's on my list of to-buys right under your book!

I'm glad that you posted this review and thus introduced me to this fine poet.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, that's nice of you, Susan, I do hope you're not disappointed with either of us

Carrie Berry said...

Hi, Susan. I am an American living in Scotland for years and I still find it difficult to read something steeped in Scots - but this wee book is beautiful to hold and read. I wasn't able to put it down until I had read every word.

Andrew Philip said...

Many thanks for the review, Jim. There are one or two thoughts in it I might pick up on over at Tonguefire.

Carrie, I'm flattered and moved you couldn't put it down. What writer wouldn't want to hear that?!

Anent the Scots in the pamphlet, I recommend the Dictionary of the Scots Language. It's free, comprehensive and searchable, even if the user interface could be improved somewhat. My first pamphlet, Tonguefire, had a Scots glossary at the back. I've not yet discussed with Salt whether we'll do the same for The Ambulance Box, but it's definitely a possibility.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Andrew, I do think a glossary would be a good idea.

Angela said...

What an amazing review. I'm really looking forward to reading this sampler.

Enjoyed the music too:)

Take care

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Angel, and it is lovely music, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I'm still digesting the Andrew Philip, but would just agree entirely with the Eno/Pärt/Vaughan Williams lineup. 'Discreet Music' is my default driving CD and I have 'An Ending' repeatedly alternating with 'First Light' as a second option (so there's Harold Budd in there too.)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dick, nice to see we're singing from the same hymn sheet here. When I was younger it was all Bartók and Khachaturian and I still love them but the tapes rarely get played these days. The last thing I was listening to actually was The Pearl.

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