‘Windfarm at Sea’, the poem which opens Philip Gross’s new collection, culminates in a powerful series of images which accrue significance as the book progresses. Gross paints the windfarm as “the pale machinery / which drives the weather… / like the distance at the heart / of too much love”. By their motion, the turbines make visible what we could otherwise not see. The wind which turns the turbines is, of course, only ever made visible or audible by the material it interacts with – trees, clouds, the sea itself – and this intersection of material and immaterial is a central theme throughout the book.
As the collection’s title suggests, A Bright Acoustic is preoccupied with sound. Gross writes of gulls mewing – “These sheer, / these curling sound-flakes / gulls slice off the air…” (‘Mew’), of blackbirds singing – “how the bird we don’t see / writes itself into space…” (‘Blackbird, Descending’), about clapping – “flash flood made with two dry palms” (‘Applause’), and about the nature of sound itself. A long sequence in 33 sections, ‘Time in the Dingle’, is a close-up study of a landscape’s composition: the poems take a microscope to the dingle’s mass of sounds and images, and pull them apart. Droplets of mist are described as “Each… / like a hanging splinter, glinting / not with light / but sound…”, while when hedge sparrows call, “their soundings / see through walls”. Repeatedly, light is expressed as audible and sound as a thing seen. If they are interchangeable, it is because both light and sound are understood here on a molecular level; in sunlight, the dingle is a “photosynthesis factory” of “chlorophyll cells”, while music is dismissed as a myth: “the rough adjustments of space / against space… / Stress patterns / that it pleases us to hear as harmonies”. Humans, too, are dissoluble; as the speaker says in one section of the sequence, “When the time comes, scatter me.”
Towards the end of the book we reach another long sequence, ‘Specific Instances of Silence’. It is a sort of counter to ‘Time in the Dingle’, concerned not so much with the world’s structures as the spaces between. One section, at once funny and pitiful, recounts a Quaker meeting broadcast on radio, and how in order to avoid “radio silence”, or the dreaded dead air, “silence had to be spoken for / by the tick of a clock”. The image points back to the wind turbines at the book’s beginning: clumsy instruments which, as humans, we rely on to help us grasp greater forces.
In ‘Fratres: Permutations on Arvo Pärt’, a bird’s flight is shown as “feathers / finding purchase on unwieldy air”. Perhaps purchase is not such a bad thing. Music might be a myth, but in its structured interplay between sound and silence we can make sense of the world, and give it meaning. At the book’s end, Gross turns away from nature and towards images of human craft and creativity. The final poem, ‘Written on Light’, concludes that:
we will be held to account…
Held, that is, as in a rare
find, fine china…
Held up, to be filled with light.
For all the book’s concern with the insubstantial and the disparate, at the end we find another way of looking at our presence in the world: the human body-and-soul as a form in which life is caught. There are religious undertones to this – Gross is a Quaker – but I don’t believe a religious reading is essential. To me, the poems seek to break down the division between human and natural, material and immaterial, and to remind us that while as humans we have no innate privilege, our integration into wider existence is itself extraordinary.
A Bright Acoustic is a deeply interesting book, intellectual and playful while at once lyrical and sensitive. It’s not always easy – although the words follow one another nimbly, the poetry is dense with images and ideas – but highly readable. These poems are exploratory and untroubled by ego, both humble in temperament and ambitious in thought.
A Bright Acoustic is available now from Bloodaxe Books.