Philip Gross, The Thirteenth Angel – review

Allowing for density of print, The Thirteenth Angel probably contains well over twice as many words as O’Brien’s Embark. Its fertility in ideas, images and perceptions is almost breath-taking. So is the vivid precision of its language of physical description. The world it presents is above all crowded with movement.  This is a part of the experience of modern life that Gross captures brilliantly. Glittering details seem to leap off every page. Looking down at a road at night the poet sees ‘the cold blush of blue / on a cheek: stranger, her mobile tingling / with presence.’ He sees road sweepers skirting round a nest of card-board boxes and bin sacks and thinks how ‘From it, at dawn, / a man unfolded, straightened / what appeared to be a tie and walked away.’ The teemingly mobile world of his poems involves the paradox that the storm of activity surrounding us is both alienating and a part of what we are. It’s alienating because the sheer pace with which things change means we can’t digest them intellectually, emotionally or imaginatively. At the same time, Gross has long been interested in exploring the porousness of the boundaries between us and the things around us. The long car-driving poem ‘Smatter’ develops this theme. In this quotation we see both the metrical skill that vivifies the hints of carnal contact in middle lines and the fundamentally cerebral and detached way in which the poet presents his material:

Could this in passing also
be a love song? Road is all
…………..relationship, the traffic
…………..between things, between
Breath, touch, word
and matter, the quiver and hum
…………..even at night, the glow
…………..behind the skyline. Road
is what connects us. Road
is appetite, and need.

In contrast with O’Brien’s melancholy surveys of erosion and defeat, The Thirteenth Angel offers an almost continuous exultation in the sheer plenitude of life and a rejoicing in opulent language. Flamboyant titles in a style reminiscent of Wallace Stevens frame poems as High Art, perhaps with something of Stevens’ own irony. Some, like ‘Black Glass Sonata’, ‘Ash Plaint in the Key of O’ or ‘Descants on Dante’, involve parallels between poetry and other art forms, usually music. Even without such explicit parallels, artifice may be proclaimed in a purely stylistic way. A long sequence inspired by lockdown is called ‘Springtime in Pandemia’, for example. And Gross frequently uses language that suggests religious transcendence. There’s another paradox here though. Both verbal opulence and religious language seem to be intended not as escapes from humdrum reality but as ways of refreshing our perception of it. So the fifth section of the long ‘Thirteen Angels’ sequence starts with the title ‘An Angel is a Kind of Music’ and continues ‘not that of the spheres but of the here and now’ (my italics).

Different styles, different costs and benefits. Embark and The Thirteenth Angel seem to me complementary in several ways.

For one thing, Embark makes us feel mentally and emotionally connected to the poet and the people he writes about. Its poetry is suffused with empathy. Less geared to connection on this level, The Thirteenth Angel explores the idea of connectedness as a flow of forces equally encompassing human and non-human being. For another, the polish of O’Brien’s art appears in his verbal frugality and willingness to trust the reader, guiding responses with the lightest hints and suggestions. His line endings work as a way of relaxing the poet’s control, giving breathing space to the reader’s imagination. He carefully avoids overloading poems in a way that would fill these spaces. Gross is like Keats or Wallace Stevens in loading every rift with ore. Often cutting against the grain of the syntax to highlight shifts in his thought, his line endings tighten control over exactly how we read what he’s written. This can seem oppressive. However, the desire to express and explore his material as exhaustively as possible is a source of his poetry’s richness and intellectual power.

Philip Gross, The Thirteenth Angel, 96pp, £12, Bloodaxe Books, 2022

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Sean O’Brien, Philip Gross and Selima Hill in issue 69 of The North.

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