Review of ‘The Fool and the Physician’

It’s very, very uncommon for me to buy contemporary poetry anthologies, which may sound strange considering that I have a great love of poetry, and would aspire to be a poet myself. I think it because I enjoy reading the ‘best of’, rather than whole collections in which some works may be more excellent than others. However, I have just finished reading Andy Brown’s ‘The Fool and the Physician’ – and I must say I’m startlingly impressed.

Andy Brown came to The University of Birmingham to give a brief talk and read some of his poems. His latest collection, ‘The Fool and the Physician’, was based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and exploring the notion of ‘fools’. I purchased it immediately after the readings, as I was intrigued by the theme, as well as with his use of intense structures and lyricism, something I feel a lot of modern poets forgo in order to pursue freer modes of expression. I am by no means against ‘free-verse’ and in fact write in it myself frequently, but it is something spectacular to see a classical form reinterpreted.

What is particularly attractive about this collection is that it’s rather like listening to a concept album: it’s unified. It’s divided into two halves, the first about fools and clowns (‘A Clown in the Moonlight’), and the second is a collection of poems based on Hieronymus’s work (‘The Fool and the Physician’), which fits in nicely as Hieronymus itself, it appears, was concerned with topsy-turvy worlds. Each poem moves to the next poem logically, like each point in a well written prose essay flows into the next, and each one explores different avenues of foolery and follies.

Particularly memorable is the exceedingly short and chapter-eponymous work: ‘A Clown in the Moonlight’, which, for anyone remotely scared of clowns, is probably a no-go. ‘Ship of Fools’ is a wonderful imago mundi (a term actually used in one of Brown’s other poems in the collection – it’s obviously affecting me), and whilst providing humour it also punches in the gut.

So for anyone with a few bob to spare who wants to read so excellent contemporary poetry from an author evidently steeped in the classics, and who has spent a lot of time and effort researching his material, and who pushes his language and metre to its breaking point, I recommend this cornucopia of bizarre, weird, foolish and ‘…Earthly Delights’.

Feel free to comment if you’ve read the book yourself!

To read more of Joseph, you can tune in to his Twitter feed at: josephwordsmith

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4 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Fool and the Physician’

  1. I knew Andy Brown would be your kinda guy! Modern poetry firmly rooted in the classics; this is a niche you must further explore. Fascinating to read your thoughts on his collection and reading as well. It won’t surprise you to know that I wasn’t especially keen: I found Brown a little too formulaic/academic and objective, rather as if he was going through the motions. There were some fine moments, but noticeably less that genuinely spoke to me than in, say, Dennis Nurkse’s reading. The more interesting poems were those in which he challenged himself with some kind of limitation or altered the linguistic parameters, like in ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ (I might have paraphrased that title somewhat!) with the anagram restriction. Otherwise the poems are merely descriptions of what’s going on in the painting, at times a paraphrase, to the extent that they appear superfluous to requirements; too prescriptive (looking at the Bosch paintings themselves would more than suffice). Though this may of course just be on first hearing them, read along with the pictures, rather than reading and re-reading as you have done.

    Look forward to chatting about it, either way!

    1. Ah interesting observations Ben. I unfortunately wasn’t able to make it to Nurske, so I can’t compare! I found it interesting actually thinking about which poems he chose to read, and which he left to be discovered in his collection. I think he definitely didn’t read some of the more emotive, expressive poems in his collection, which is perhaps an unusual choice? I think you would enjoy his ‘Curse on a Wedding’ – which is far more metaphorical, and though based in Bosch’s painting, it goes quite far beyond it in my opinion and draws together several images. It also seem the closest to a ‘personal’ poem by him. Anyways, like you said, hours ot debate yet to come! I must read Nurske, Sam liked him too, so that’s two recommendations.

  2. Hi Joseph, and thanks for taking the time to review the book – really pleased you like it. You’re absolutely right: my intention in writing from these paintings was never to ‘merely describe’ what’s in the painting – what would be the point of that? It has to be to try and go as far beyond it as you can, and to use the painting as a starting point, to provide a theme, or suggest a ‘way in’ to your subject matter. You’re right: there are some much more personal poems in the book, like ‘Curse on A Wedding’, ‘The Departure’ and even the ‘Seven Deadly Englynion’, which only use the images as a starting point. I hope that’s what I’ve done throughout the book anyway. Thanks for your interest and interesting thoughts, AB

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