Oscar and I, Peter Phillips, Ward Wood Publishing, £8.99
reviewed by Barbara Smith
Imagine a mirror held up – you’re a male poet of advancing years, with some success in the poetry world, but your income is modest. You are reasonably well thought of, and a teaching poet, that is if it weren’t for tiresome students. You are also married to someone who puts up with you and your career – as well as your foibles, and you have somehow managed to acquire a dog that, in some ways, matches your character and the undercurrent of doubts that you have about your poetry and its world. Oh, and you seem to have a predilection for beer and wine, particularly claret. Such is the collection of Peter Philips: Oscar and I: Confessions of a Minor Poet, a poetry biography of fictional poet, George Meadows.
The poems tell his story and the collection is designed to be read through, as one might read a longer biography. The collection works – converting human observation into sketches that accumulate into a broader portrait of the male poet. George is likeable and flawed but he is aware of his flaws. He is a womaniser – but more of a take-advantager, an egotist – but a mild one (and let’s face it, most of us are), a drinker – obviously self-medicating against the fear of running dry and being able to keep on writing well … but look, what is happening here? It’s as though Oscar and I were a drama, and I was being sucked in by the characters and storylines…
It is a collection that draws you in and you keep on reading, to see what happens to George and Oscar. At the beginning, it seems as though George’s career might be about to take flight, as he talks to his publisher but as the collection progresses we wonder just how smoothly things are running for him. To say any more would be to spoil the ending for the prospective reader, but as you turn the pages, you have to keep reminding yourself that the biography has been rendered in verse. This demonstrates the deceptively easy way that Phillips has assembled the whole collection. The poems mingle points of views: beginning in third person and moving quickly to George’s so you feel as though you are looking over his shoulder, somehow almost experiencing and feeling what he does – and feeling sorry for him as well.
There are some witty ideas incorporated into the collection: ‘At a Literary Festival’ uses those strange questions other people often ask poets: “Could you tell me where you get your ideas from?” I’ve heard Michael Longley say that, if he knew, he would go there – and George’s reply is just as witty. ‘Giving Advice to an Aspiring Poet’ is pretty sound advice – particularly in the first stanza: “Find a poetry pal, someone you trust /… / a good critic, and a wonderful gossip.” These honest titbits are what I like best about Oscar. This is definitely a collection for poets and if we’re honest, there’s a wee bit of all of us in it.