Review – Philip Gross, A Bright Acoustic

Philip Gross, A Bright Acoustic, 96 pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books

Philip Gross is much admired for the intellectually exploratory side of his writing. Not having a philosophical or scientific mind, I have difficulty with longish works held together by ideas of an essentially abstract and cerebral kind, as is the case with the sequence “The Same River”. What I love about this poet is the way his imaginative power, skill in sensuous description and darting intelligence work in more localised and concrete contexts.

“Wren Time” shows the power with which Gross thinks in metaphors and the speed with which he moves between them. Walking in a wood, the poet is surprised by a wren. He imagines experiencing the wood from the point of view of such a small, fast-living creature. He doesn’t just slow movement down, though. He describes sound in terms of substance:


this wood
…………….(timed to its heart
beat, its wing beat)
……………………… strung
with gloopy swags of bird song:

blackbird slow and heavy as velvet
stage drapes –
…………………….or the dust-bin lid alarm
spreading out in thick ripples
as I lumber into view


From there, fusing space and time, he imagines an architecture of the moment in which birds on the branches are like Mohawk workmen on the skeletons of sky scrapers, “riveting Manhattan / to the sky”, “scattering / their grins / and lunch crumbs to  the heedless / streets below” – both grins and crumbs becoming images of birdsong. What makes these synaesthetic image-transformations so startling is the fullness with which each scene is developed before dissolving into something else. There’s a sense of delighted surprise at the rapid opening of a series of windows on the world, each developed for its own sake as well as pushing the overall argument forward.

Gross is fond of breaking sentences into short segments, whether by line and stanza breaks or by punctuation. I have mixed feelings about this technique. Sometimes it works brilliantly, switching the reader’s focus in a dynamic, eye-catching way, miming changes of direction in the speaker’s thought processes, or suggesting the movement of things he’s watching. However, I sometimes found it fussy and over-controlling, pinning the reader down to one very specific way of taking what he read.

Using longer lines, the outstanding “Back” illustrates Gross’s ability to combine humour and seriousness in a way that maintains a shifting play of tones and gives the reader interpretative scope. Working through the logic of nativist ecology, Gross reduces it to absurdity. First he imagines driving out recent floral immigrants like Himalayan balsam, buddleia, and rhododendron, then older ones like pear, sycamore and plane tree, working back to the deepest Ice Age, with everything gone but “the grunt / and lowing of the ice sheet crumpling into place.” The beauty of the poem is in the way the argument magnetizes into itself a range of metaphors and associations that suggest different takes on what “immigration” has brought us, and what nativist prejudice is like. Sometimes the images are desolate or violent, but wit always remains, so tones blend and shift in a suggestively unstable way. Balsam is crushed by embarrassment, as an older woman might be shamed into dressing in a way supposedly appropriate to her age. The loss of its gaudy pinks leaves a darkness like that of an abandoned theatre in Puritan times. Later metaphors evoke associations with totalitarianism and the Holocaust. Xenophobia is wittily skewered: pears are imagined as trying to hide among the crabbiest (ie most native) apples until they’re denounced. The “grunt / and lowing of the ice sheet” suggests the victory of prejudice at its most stupid. So the poem is both about the fluidity of ecological systems and the inevitability of change in nature – resonating in this way with the volume’s widest philosophical and scientific reflections – and an implicit comment on social attitudes, perhaps with particular relevance in the age of Brexit.

Whether your main interest is in following the latest steps in Gross’s exploration of ideas or simply in enjoying work in which imaginative flair, intelligence, intellectual breadth and poetic technique have all been ripened by long practice, this is a book I warmly recommend.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost this reviewfrom The North 59.

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