Philip Gross, Between the Islands – review

The epigraph to Between the Islands is a quotation from Guillevic’s Carnac, ‘Nous n’avons de rivage, en vérité, / Ni toi, ni moi’: in John Montague’s translation, ‘We have no shore, really, / Neither you nor I’. This questioning of boundaries is followed by ‘Edge States’, three poems that seem to find them everywhere:

Sunlight, late
………………… the year, the edge
of winter. Light like stainless steel.
Just out of hearing,
…………………………..the ring
of its thin blades fencing with itself.
Light like glass
…………………….that, let fall
on water growing harder at the edge
of freezing,
……………….could break.

What makes that opening gripping is how concentrated and precise it is. And how full of edges. It doesn’t just talk about them, it weaves the feeling of edges into its very texture, repeatedly bringing us up short by line breaks and punctuation points. In this way it might seem to oppose the epigraph. On another level, though, it corroborates it. Sudden fractures in the poem’s movement, highlighting shifts of thought, also sharpen awareness of how constantly Gross’s imagination dissolves semantic and sensory boundaries. The brilliance of his metaphors feeds on his gift for synaesthesia, the description or actual experiencing of one sense in terms of another – conceiving light, for example as making a not-quite-audible sound. Compression is further helped by his alertness to the multiple meanings of words. So ‘hearing’ and ‘blades’ bring out the double meanings of ‘ring’ and ‘fencing’, making the images of a circular fence (another boundary) and a fencing match shine through each other. And then the ringing sound we’ve imagined consolidates the later image of light as a glass-like solid that could strike hardening ice and shatter.

This double view of boundaries as at once real and illusory pervades the book. It’s reflected in Gross’s fondness for anthropomorphising metaphors and the attribution of sentience and human feeling to inanimate things:

A pier is a tease. A come-on
………………………even when it’s empty.
It would go too far, it is suggesting, if it could.

How beautifully duplicitous the movement of comparison is there, apparently borrowing human qualities for a playful description of the pier but in the process creating a vivid symbol of human feelings, including the ambivalence of our feelings about moving beyond boundaries. There’s a similar two way movement in ‘Himself’. On one level, this is a comic riff on Ted Hughes’ ‘The Bull Moses’, but, as the title suggests, it also plays into the theme I’ve been discussing. Here, what’s described is a bull but the animal is presented in such thoroughly anthropomorphic terms that I’d be hard put to say whether the poem uses human metaphors to describe a bull or the image of a bull to create the impression of a certain kind of aggressively and insecurely self-assertive person. The paradox is that this creature, described as being ‘still / as something that resists / comparison’ and ‘rapt / in the fact of himself’ is created almost wholly by comparisons.

What’s involved is more than just a vivifying descriptive technique. Gross is fascinated by the lack of clear boundaries between the individual being and the forces of nature and society that surround and constitute it. There are glimpses of an almost mystical communion with nature, reminiscent of Wordsworth and Coleridge, though in Gross such moments are hard won, precarious and tentative:


it was the least,
the quiet thing, the ice

that spoke to me.


Here, the poetry moves to the edge of verbal expression, using metaphor to point towards feelings and intuitions beyond analysis.

Gross’s many-layered poems create complex internal circuits for meditation. It’s typical that the last section of ‘Three Fevers and a Fret’ should fold together a powerful denunciation of ecological damage with almost metaphysical brooding on the paradoxical way our lives are both part of and alienated from the wider life of the world, here symbolized by the sea, and that it uses the pathetic fallacy – the attribution of human feelings to inanimate things – to denounce the pathetic fallacy. But ‘fold together’ perhaps puts it wrongly. It might be truer to say that Gross suggests that our paradoxical relation to nature is why we damage her as we do. The section begins

I am sick, sea says. You must listen. Sick
of many things, including your pathetic
fallacies. That song you thought you heard
wasn’t mine …

and ends

                      Listen. Catch the glitter-swish
of shoals switching grey-silver-grey to
off. The shiver-to-stillness of the coral
bleaching. The slow spreading of the spill
to pools of silence. The hundred-mile spool
of whale song snapped. I have no words for you.



Between the Islands by Philip Gross. Bloodaxe Books Ltd. 80pp.; £10.99

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 98.

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