REVIEW by Jane Fraser

NWR Issue 101

The North End of the Possible

by Andrew Philip

We all know that feeling: every now and again you read something that seems so wonderfully effortless, yet when you delve beneath the surface there is so much attention to form and language, such depth of thought. This is how I felt reading Andrew Philip’s second collection of poetry, The North End of the Possible.

In forty-one finely crafted and highly imaginative poems, Philip takes the reader on a narrative journey that explores a sense of place at its physical and psychological levels: geographical, environmental and cultural, landscapes of love, of longing, belonging, of not belonging. Throughout the journey, Philip asks the big questions: how do isolation, belonging and the land shape us? And he gives us possible answers through poetry that is politically charged, linguistically rich and varied, and emotionally engaging.

The collection reintroduces the reader to the character of Macadam who appeared in Philip’s first award-nominated poetry collection, The Ambulance Box. Macadam reappears here in the opening and closing sections: a tragi-comic hero living on the edge, who keeps on going even though all life seems to be stacked against him, involved in his absurd quest into

cobbling light apart
into constituent darknesses:
pit mirk, pick mirk, part mirk, heart mirk.

These poems are a delight to the ear; I found myself reacting instinctively to sound, and the effect was both to create meaning purely through phonology when I did not know the language (Gaelic or Scots dialect) and to reinforce meaning when I did. Take for example Macadam’s thoughts as he ‘unsilos a sample of the night’:

If he lets its loose into the day, will it
rise to the rooftops and spread –
a mirk eagle raxing its wingspan –

or slink towards the sewer and form
a gooey, galurie dub?

It is these choices that Philip details with lyricism and empathy as Macadam’s experiments run out of control and life turns to chaos and further isolation, as the narrative unfolds and our hero 'feels at home in this unbound element, / unfankling gravity / at the north end of the possible.'

Philip is a master of narrative structure, and in the final poem of the collection’s opening section he signals that his readers are to move on, and that we will leave Macadam for a while, ‘wading
waist deep into the loosened waves’. Next comes a sequence that is full of humour, imaginative reach and formal invention, the latter apparent in the use of verbs such as ‘shortcutting’ and compounded modifiers such as ‘gloomed-out’. Here also are poems almost devoid of punctuation, serving to reinforce particular themes, such as dreams; some where each line magically ends with a preposition; and others that use the physical landscape to give syllabic structure to the whole. In ‘Look North, and North Again’, for example, Philip writes in four-lined syllabic stanzas (5-6-8-11) plus one hilarious five-syllabled end-line, inspired by the arrangement of slabs in the gardens at Linlithgow’s Burgh Halls:

Since the result of
the referendum on
the fate of Berwick-upon-Tweed,
there have been increasing reports that adults

in northern England
are spontaneously
becoming Scottish. Doctors state
that the condition does not seem infectious….

Elsewhere, in a cleverly crafted sequence of ten ten-line poems, Philip gives a warts an’ all retrospective, organised by direct or oblique reference, to a list of anniversary gifts for the first ten years of marriage to Judith. There’s no sentimentality, just the stuff we can all relate to: poignant memories, hopes, regrets, the birth of children, time’s passing:

Nor are we
who we were when we first shared the sheets,
my kilt and sporran tossed with your dress,
the hotel linens wrapping us tight.

Philip offers a must-read, must-listen-to, much-to-think-about collection for anyone
who, like me, is interested in the relationship between language and place. Just as Macadam can break down darkness into its constituent parts, so Philip can unbolt language and bolt it together again – with exciting results. The North End of the Possible is a joy to read, just as its cover is a work of art; you want to hold this book in your hands and sniff it. But make the most of this collection, and other such single-author collections which give a platform to voices such as Philip’s, as the publisher, Salt, is to publish no more for the foreseeable future. What a shame!

Jane Fraser is an NWR online contributor


previous review: That Burning Summer
next review: Enemy of the Ants


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