Tom Phillips – Parental language


My mother could be sharp-tongued,
suffered no fools gladly, had
ready phrases in her head,
warmth that took off the sting.

Blunter, my father’s tongue, by far‒
his dozen words for soil, tilth,
for tools, trees, birds, streams, fish –
solid-sounding, lighter on the ear.

Between them they mapped the raw
class contours, town and country,
thrown together in times of plenty
turned to myth after ‘their’ war.

It feels doubtful I’d have understood
what either set of grandparents said.


And so now when they ask me to teach
‘good English’, I’m partly at a loss:
my so-called mother tongue? Or this –
the compromise my tongue’s reached?

Confounded from multiple sources,
there are rules that are not rules, I find
myself saying with no real grounds,
distracted by inherited verbal resources.

My father called a basket a trug,
my mother recited lines from plays.
The language torque mis-steers
but still we have to try.

There’s something of a red rag
in the covers of the dictionary.


In the glistening dark of the hospital road,
something waits to be named, be described.

Too far off or too close, it stays out of sight.
And it’s as if I’ve almost left it too late

to find a dry roof in time when luck
brings a daughter to the door, back

from a migrant’s life, her accent slipped,
vowels clipped in that other country.

And to abandon belonging might be it
or passing through a penultimate stop.

Not that I got to hear your last words.
By the time I was told, you’d been and gone.

Your tongue had become dispersing cells
that no longer significantly functioned.


Which leaves no means to explain
the what or why of our remains,
oddments of accumulation,
letters, vases, slides, a single hat
or tarnished brass of a lighter …

As if a brief, receding epitaph
were all the tongue preserves!
And this is a paradox enduring:
that what we leave to outlast us
was never really ours.

In aftermath of brackish flux,
the sand still looks the same ‒
though letters carved in the beach
have been deftly swept away.

Tom Phillips, Sofia, November 2020

Poem selected by Emilia Mirazchiyska, series’ editor

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Tom Phillips
Tom Phillips was born in Buckinghamshire in 1964. He is a freelance writer and guest lecturer at various British and Balkan universities. He has lived in Bristol, UK, since 1986, but since the 2000s he has often travelled to the Balkan peninsula and much of his literary and research interests are focused on the region. He has been published in many magazines, anthologies and pamphlets and he has published three books of poetry in UK: “Recreation Ground” (Two Rivers Press, 2012), “Reversing into the Cold War” (Firewater/Poetry Monthly, 2007) and “Burning Omaha” (Firewater, 2003) and one bilingual books of poetry in Bulgaria: “Unknown Translations / Непознати преводи” (Scalino, 2016). He is the author of a number of plays, of which “Coastal Defences” (Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, 2014) and “100 Miles North of Timbuktu” (Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol, 2013) have enjoyed the greatest theatrical success.