Later by Philip Gross. 64 pp. £9.95 paperback

Carrying on where Deep Field left off, Later explores thoughts and feelings springing from Gross’s nonagenarian father’s physical decline, aphasia and death. The experiences behind the poems are poignantly personal. It’s a testament to Gross’s skill and moral sensitivity that he writes about them with tenderness and deep feeling, without ever seeming to breach barriers between the public and the private or to intrude on the reader. More, even as he makes us feel the sadness of so much of what he writes about, the strongest feelings we’re left with, I think, are a heightened sense of the richness of life and of the powers of the human mind.

Of course, what makes fine poetry is not merely how important or moving its subject matter is but how this matter is brought alive and brought home to us by the poet’s creativity with language and form.

Gross has a powerfully metaphorical imagination. Sometimes this shows itself in startling, exhilarating leaps from metaphor to metaphor. For example, “Stroke Ward” uses a rapid succession of different images to describe the devastating effects of a stroke: kings lying in state on longship biers wreathed in flame; shark mouths gaping in the sea; blown fuses; a rolling blackout round the planet as seen from space; darkness flooding the bulkheads of a ship. Other poems use an opposite method, focusing on the delicate and sustained teasing out of the analogical possibilities of a single image. One such is the brilliant “Phlogiston”, which says much about life, mortality and different human emotions by exploring the idea of fire and our responses to it in nine intricate meditations over three pages. In yet other poems, narrative transforms itself into metaphor. In “Step”, for example, Gross’s father returns from hospital. Tenderly empathetic observation of his unsteady walk precipitates an idea of the precariousness of such a person’s life, or of what the poem makes us think of as his footing in time, in a way that seems less like the development of an idea than the receiving of a revelation:


Home, after too long

              in hospital, your each

                             step hesitant

as if the moment was a shallow stream

to be waded …


The author even makes personifications start into life with apparently casual ease: “Snow the Cartographer  // has pored all night / over the finer details / of the hill beyond the city”. In short, for Gross, thinking in images appears to be as much a matter of instinct as of deliberate method, and there’s probably not a poem in the book where metaphorical brilliance doesn’t show itself in one way or another.

A talent for metaphor can go with a narrow, obsessive reduction of all experience to the same few terms. Absolutely the reverse is the case with these poems. They’re remarkable for their varied responsiveness to the world, their associative freedom and the amplitude in the movement of their ideas. Their language is richly varied, drawn from a range of semantic fields (including striking uses of scientific concepts and metaphors), and it shifts freely between formal and colloquial, even slangy registers. Apart from overt wordplay, Gross characteristically chooses words with acute sensitivity to the range of meanings and associations they bring into play. All this creates complex refractions of feeling and thought, generating complicated ripples of suggestion and response.

Verse lives by its author’s mastery of the cadences of speech and of the line. Gross is brilliantly versatile and original in his handling of rhythm, metre and form. “Step”, quoted above, is just one among many examples of how vividly the structure of his lines can seem to recreate the movement of what he’s describing. He uses indented lines equally vividly to suggest the movements not of the observed object but of the observing eye, or of the speaking voice or thinking mind. Moreover, much though he uses stepped lines and other forms of free verse, he’s equally able to draw original music out of a form as traditional as the iambic pentameter, as he does in “Variations on a Theme from the Cornish”. Finally, there are purely visual and emblematic effects, as in the mirror construction of “Whit”.

This isn’t to say there were no faults in the book. Occasionally I felt that lineation was used fussily, limiting the reader’s responses. Very occasionally I felt that ideas hadn’t found sufficiently imaginative expression. The title poem “Later”, for example, starts brilliantly. It’s strongly anchored in the physical world (“after the work stopped / water filled the quarry pit”) but presents it in rapid strokes and then changes perspective with inspired imaginative freedom, suddenly moving into the sky, to a bird’s eye view:


then it was available for light

and for transients, drawn

               by its glint from the sky


before coming back to earth for a wonderfully delicate, precise view of the birds themselves as they appear to the human eye and the anthropomorphising imagination:


dip-and-shrugging and

                 frisking themselves. One

stands up, almost, on the water …
The sheer imaginative thereness of the birds underwrites the reflections on the ideas of self and being that follow in the final two stanzas. The trouble is, the expression of these ideas is abstract and clumsily involved. There’s something almost magical about the way the last word of the poem seems to float free of the sentence, receding into the white space of the page like an astronaut cut adrift from his ship, but it isn’t enough to redeem what precedes it:


but what we are, thrown

               out and off, un-self-seen,

once-for-all, betraying even as it leaves us

our position, giving itself (don’t you long

                              to say ‘gladly’?) away


Such blemishes are rare. This is a remarkable book; only the fineness of almost all of it makes the awkward moments stand out.

I wrote this for Acumen 78 and would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post it here.


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