Friday, 1 July 2011

Breaking Open the Medikit: Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box

Breaking Open the Medikit: Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box

The half-rusted first aid kit that attires the cover of Philip’s first book of poetry is apt: this is a book of halves and struggles. “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words” said Robert Frost, and in The Ambulance Box this transformation is frequently – though not exclusively – fuelled by the death of Philip’s son, to whom the book is dedicated. The Ambulance Box takes on a new meaning, then, to its reader who is brought in to share the various trials of the father, the poet, who simultaneously memorialises trauma whilst attempting to distance himself from it.

The collection opens with one of a series of four “Hebridean Thumbnails” that are placed throughout the book. “islands buried in the sky’s white sands”, reads the first, under the Gaelic title “fo cheò” (which translates as ‘mist-covered’). The poem sets things in motion with a conciseness of word and image that is typical of Philip: no word is superfluous, each is simple but well considered, there is a link to the land but also a sense of beauty and isolation in tandem. The islands are made unreal by their contrast with the sky’s “white sand” which is concurrently transient (as mist) and concrete (as sand). There is a clear play on language structures too, made apparent through Philip’s use of English, Gaelic and Scots throughout the book but also through his use of ambiguity. Here “islands” which, when read aloud, shifts between the singular and the plural (‘islands buried’ -as merely image- and ‘island’s buried’ -as an active process) enact the uncertainty of physical and spiritual existence that riddle the collection.

Philip’s approach is frequently lyrical and formal but not without diversity.  One of the most successful series in the collection, “Pilgrim Variations” experiments with notions of exploration through its appealing use of enjambment and by successfully twinning opposing images and phrases to develop a sense of displacement:


If it’s your avowed attempt , go then: leave
and live among us

separately. Laden like that, you can forget
a swift departure for all

your talk of high speed links to yonder
wicket gate.

The series maintains the electricity of its language, which is consistently unsettling but playful, whilst alternating its form to deliver a flowing narrative that seems irregular/unusual but frequently engaging.  That said, the formal structure of The Ambulance Box is not without its flaws: it too frequently reverts to two-line stanza structures which, although give a sense of prolonged and sustained theme, eventually lose their spark. This is the poet returning to what he knows and what he is good at yet it sometimes feels as though he is resting on his laurels. This is perhaps symptomatic of the frequent return to the internal struggles of the poet, the revealing of a mind in turmoil over attempts to remember or purposefully forget the past, which is bound to repeat itself in the mind and on the page.

Perhaps the most outstanding quality of The Ambulance Box comes from the poet’s inability to maintain a coherent understanding of his own feelings towards his son’s death. As such the collection becomes a portrait of confusion, chaos, inadequacy, attempts at reconciliation and understanding, of guilt and acceptance, and ultimately of love. But we are never made to feel sorry or pity, only to consider the nature and fragility of the human body and mind. Like those early islands buried in the sky’s white sand there is a great feeling of isolation brought about by a narrator who is habitually on the outside looking inward, but permeating this is an ore of hope, typified in the collection’s namesake poem, “The Ambulance Box”:

            ... our various wounds
are at home with the box

and all it contains.
                             Hear us,
shoulder to shoulder in the dusk,

celebrate life – sprained and splinted
                                                set to heal

In The Ambulance Box hope is bound by this unnamed community who sit “shoulder to shoulder” but never mouth to mouth. Hope resides in the mind of the individual, in the assurance of the physical presence of the world around, in language, in the very soil of its creation. The various written languages of the book are testament to the transient nature of the collection as a whole: almost everything is undergoing change. The land, however, is reliable, it sustains the nomadic mind of the poet who is split between worlds of isolation and community, peace and anguish; a concept most honestly spoken in the third of the “Hebridean Thumbnails”, “solus na stoirme” (‘Storm Light’):

where sky and land split         a fragment of grief flickers

This reliance of the stability of the land and its ability to revivify memory is no new thing, though Philip makes a point of drawing us toward it without overstating the cause. He creates community and stability through taking the lump in his throat, his lovesickness and successfully finding the words to voice them.  

Though not always hitting the high notes this collection works as a complete body to promote persistence of the human spirit. Philip’s voice is honest, its cause just. His understanding and exploitation of formal technique is apt and, at times, excitingly enigmatic. Some of the language experiments seem out of place (see his Scots rewriting of Rilke’s “Spanish Dancer”, which works in its own right but just sits awkwardly) or lack the same fervour of others in the book, though for the most part they offer an interesting contrast to his more emotive elements and help to develop ideas of difference and doubt which play well throughout this personal, challenging and experienced read.

Philip, Andrew, The Ambulance Box (London: Salt Publishing, 2009).


Russell Jones