Tom Phillips: Making light of it

Tom PTom Phillips was born and spent most of his adult life in the UK, but now lives and works as a writer, translator and teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of journals and anthologies, as well as the full-length collections Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016), Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Burning Omaha (Firewater 2003). Since moving to Sofia, he has published four online pamphlets: Scenes from Unfilmed Cinema (2021), And Now Rousing Music (2020), Foreign in Europe (2019), Present Continuous (2018) – which can be downloaded from his blog.

Tom has translated work by many of Bulgaria’s leading contemporary and modernist poets and is a contributing editor for Bulgata – a website publishing Bulgarian literature in translation – while his own work has been translated into Albanian, Bulgarian, Hindi, Italian, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian and Spanish. He is a former writer-in-residence at Sofia Literature and Translation House and teaches creative writing at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski.


‘It’s probably fair to say that most of the poems I’ve written since moving to Bulgaria in 2017 have been attempts to understand, adjust to and form attachments with our new surroundings. There’s something of that in these four poems too, but this time born of the abrupt de-familiarisation that has accompanied the pandemic. All four were written in the second half of last year and, with the exception of ‘Damned as well’, they refer to quite specific places and occasions, be that a Black Sea beach last August (‘Bathers’) or the view from our bathroom window in Sofia (‘Reverse mirror’). ‘Making light of it’ is more elastic in that it follows associations between experiences from different places at different times rather than laying them out in any kind of chronological documentary, but it would still be able to decipher it as a sort of roman à clef.

‘Damned as well’, on the other hand, is a childhood memory prompted by the unexpected discovery that there was a secret Cold War base near where I grew up and that my parents had been friends with Americans who were almost certainly in the CIA – the poem re-imagines an actual visit to one of those friends in the light of that possibility.

‘Reverse mirror’ differs from the others in another way in that it was originally written in Bulgarian – something which I have been doing on and off since I started learning the language seven years ago. Writing in a second language poses its own challenges, of course, but, on the whole, I’ve found having a smaller vocabulary and fewer linguistic tools at my disposal paradoxically liberating – perhaps because that means I have no choice but to let the language take the lead.

You can watch a video of Tom reading some of these poems as part of an online Poets and Writers International Studio event here:



The part of me that’s had enough
has had enough again. The sky’s
a dirty visor; car brakes scrape
like stropping razors. Still
I’m walking, can work, take cash
from my wallet and pay.
More! Though it’s not my shout:
pub bore, bar fixture, mon frѐre
you’re not here, like another who,
rising at his own funeral, called:
Whose round is it? And back
came our reply: It’s yours!

Two faces in the off-licence window
stare out, propped up on palms,
waiting for an Edward Hopper
to glance from the umbrellas.
Hard rain falls. The crossing’s
inviting me over. Hey!
is the brand on the scooped,
convenient thing that sits
behind convenient glass.
Wanting coins, I dig out,
putting a few in their place,
securing a better purchase.

Under appropriate lighting
that wastebin may be more
than what we’ve left in it
below snow-caped slopes
where distances converge.
Jays shriek, jive, lack means
to make good territories.
Scant food in this wood,
though finches endure
until they find it. Wait!
What hand has dug a hole
among the poplars, damp
as a sump, to what end?

Tilth heaps, ground’s turned,
rims of fountains frosted.
A warehouse on the brink
slumps to rust, it’s lost
to all purpose. As wide
as the forest, a hillside
of lives memorialised
in small, fine print.
Fearless nor faithless,
we defer to what’s clearing
in the brightening air
now everything’s been paid for.

And it has – if that’s the price
of our final truce, their peace
that passeth all understanding.
Haunting graveyards again,
it’s like that time, a birthday,
walking out of Tenby, we found
headstones mounted in a wall,
reclaimed from land rewilding.
Which has got us thinking,
here or there. Not so far
as we go, a deepening view
unfurls as a billowing sail.

Still the rain falls. Still
in the off-licence window,
sitting on high stools,
friends with hair pulled tight
stir their coffees and wait.
And whatever is at hand
is all we’ll get, those drawn
to the wet street’s sheen,
its patina of spattered neon.
Taxis veering through puddles
spray pavements and shoes.
Clouds build their own mountains

though the day’s solitary jet
breaks looming cover to streak
blue patches with contrails;
pitching over Sofia, it banks,
then steadies for final approach.
A coach sits tight in a bay:
no way to see how that will out.
Thoughts run so far, snag,
trail tendrils, trail off,
lose their lightness of touch.
Let us count our blessings
in this stand of birch.

Wrinkled under glass,
a timetable, its figures
rewritten in other hands.
A palimpsest! Abandoned
railway station spaces –
the cashier’s desk, locked
toilet door. The forgotten
attend café tables outside.
Waiting rooms proliferate.
The sounding bells recall
priests on the run to make
– only just – an evening service.

So, yes, friend, you’ve gone
and what you’ve missed
is our exigencies: the last
glass filled, contingencies
of place and time. Fine!
Dead finch on the pavement,
request for a carrier bag,
queues to pay at the gas station
with a contactless card –
the arch of a bridge drips
disowned ambitions, lacks
geometrical standards.

Herd instinct works against
the shepherd. You can see
how it’s written, his want
of calm as his charges do
just that. They butt, bleat,
rear on the roadway, leave
printed traces, smutted snow.
It’s all go – and they might
have gone some time ago,
were it not for seasons
inexplicably changing
and autumn clinging on.

Dust motes – just watch –
don’t jostle, nor birds
aligned in flight collide.
We have circuitry. The dead
good avoid what’s left –
a cemetery is a map
of achievements. Hey!
What’s still on sale sounds
like a ricochet, the held onto
that we’ve never got
or what we’re going to buy
in the here and now.

Wineglass on a gravestone,
necrologs on doorposts:
a way to manage things.
There’s food up here and
stood at the monastery gate
a priest. With arm in a cast,
he merely wants to say how
in the sky he saw a sign
too late. And he might have
there, on the sun-split trees,
were it not for what cries
at your terrible, posthumous joke.

Sofia, December 2020


And it comes then,
rolling to a curl,
broiling at head height,
hurling through.

We dot the sea.
Thought complex
as interference
beneath sky’s shelter

gulls’ dinning clatter.
Rattle of coins
on a kiosk counter’s
too distant to matter.

Tide turns. Dog leaps,
barking into breeze
whose careless force
whips undefeated

barefoot miners
scouring shore.

Irreparable chance
scuffs rock curves
stubborn as grace,
warning too soon.

Sea’s re-assemblage
towards air cures:
undertow unfelt.
An unforeseen step

waist-deep in ocean’s
sharp green distance.

Sofia, September 2020


You’re reading me poetry, that’s Irish, and so black.
‘The House Jack Kerouac Built’ The Go Betweens

The road sign read Eden.
A lane crooked through marshland.
Egrets, waterways, stench
of diesel at wharf’s end –
and their house, triumphant,
built on the peak of an isthmus.

Such views! And their lives
as if perpetually surprised
by uncertain completion –
or the clothes they stood up in,
circling a design, adventurous
in its sunken furnishings.

Terra incognita, here be dragons
or ruined reed beds, as it happens.


Not on the brochure, certainly.
An old clock stands in the corner:
snap-shut clacks the pelican’s beak.
“One delta to another,” he says,
crew cut, hell hole to paradise –
or that’s the implication
as bourbons are poured round.

Who knows where he’s been?
That there were so many dead?


A catfish, discoloured,
hauled up a bank,
its greasy torso
hid in seared reeds:
backdrop of cranes,
factory plumes,
a naval base.

Reflected clouds
refract in slicks of oil.

Where does
this river run?
A tributary
of a tributary
creaking like foil,
all the way back
up to its source.


The thing was
to turn away
and not look.

To make
no form from
what was said.


The road sign read Eden.
Such views!


Crew cut, he stood,
friend of the friend
of my father, back
from somewhere
with so many dead –

and that catfish,
discoloured, hid
in reeds dried out
beside the foiled creek.

February 2021


Through the branches’ framework,
it’s like another sun’s moved in.
The sharp light cuts
between the cement blocks,
which themselves are cutting the horizon:
a yellow radiance glows
through our human valley,
where at night our personal hamlets
hold their place without fear,
but with rows of orange lamps.
Today, though, the clouds are turning
faster than wheels, flying
from south to north, Vitosha to Hope.

To be a naturalist among
the extravagances of nature:
what cries, roars, what beasts
are rising outside the borders
of silently emptying buildings?
The neighbour would reply,
it would draw me back,
but already the tide of human noises
is re-establishing itself and spills
out of the long valley to the forest
which we build and re-build
endlessly, as if we don’t know
whether we can succeed.

Let the hawk stay honest.
Under the cloud’s scrawl we’re expecting
either a threatening storm or a wild party.
Above the ruined store shed
the stars are gossiping about the sun.
Everyone strives for love, but lethargically,
strangely lethargically, like tramstop ghosts.
These aren’t premotions, just birds
that wind and twist and retreat.
All day I could listen to the frogs
until they get too raucous:
their little pistons drum on the marshes.
Who doesn’t wish for reconciliation, peace?
The question comes round in the afternoon,
when everything begins to go out.
Nothing happens. The warmth sucks in breath.
Lazily one stork is crossing this blue untouched sky.

Sofia, 2020.

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