I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:
‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’
A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add
‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’
This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:
‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’
Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded
‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’
The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:
‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
like sunlight in March.’
Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.
This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.
2nd October 2016