80 pages, Bloodaxe, £9.95
The theme of Deep Field, the previous collection from a giant of the poetry world, Philip Gross, is repeated throughout the poems in Later, which instantly raises an eyebrow on whether Gross has anything new to say. If there was justice in this poetry world, it would instead raise the question as to whether collections are ever truly that thematic, or whether this is just a selling point for the publisher. Collections need a certain feel to them, no doubt, but sometimes blurb writers can push the boundaries.
Later, at least, can be labelled a bulkier version of Deep Field, as it obtains the same objective but with much more variety. It retains direct references to the poet’s father, and Estonia features heavily (his father’s former homeland, about which he says: ‘What could I do/by going, you said later, except see/it was gone?‘).
With Later comes with the inevitable spaces and brackets, which are not an emulation of Deep Field but Gross’s trademark, though the best description of this style still comes from Deep Field: ‘bilingual in English and Silence’ (‘Something Like The Sea’). Intrusive brackets are limited to conclusions, where brackets occur in the final sentence of the poem, twice being followed by just a single word (in the poems ‘Later’ and ‘Whit’). Otherwise, they are an integral part of Later‘s poetry.
‘The Works’ introduces Gross’s eye for detail, summed up best when it comes to:
the silence of downed tools — be exact:
that of particular names
core or ribbon blender), true names
someone would have known
as if by nature
We are shown the importance of connecting objects with the senses, rather than just including the list of a D.I.Y catalogue, with the ‘snug in the palm’:
of a lever or grip (dispersal kneader,
pelletiser), metal warming to the hand
that used it. No generic silence, this,
but particular gaps
in the air, the way
the absences of hardy, top fuller, slack
tub linger in specific corners
of a converted smithy
Among these absences, the most visual is the slack tub, or the ‘slack/tub’, an instance where splitting a line is actually effective rather than just for show, possibly because here we can imagine a tub which was slack, therefore likely to have cracked at some point, making it easier to smell oil or brine in a corner of the ‘converted smithy’.
This embedded detail in Later varies from solid objects to moments of strangeness we can never say for sure have really happened, though for a minute, we could have sworn swear… No, wait…Did I imagine that? I must have… Away from ‘The Works’, we are treated to subtle versions of the displayed technique.
We meet shoppers ‘between incarnations’. And the mist ‘that’s needed to conceal the workings/of the world’. We meet two of the circular audience congregated around Joseph Wright’s (whose effects of emphasising the contrast of light and dark Gross can emulate with great purpose) orrery, who stare into ‘the heart/of things’, ‘drawn to, till they almost are,/the source of light.’, although in another poem ‘distance itself/sits in among us’.
In ‘Some People Have Communications’, readers will recognise the turn:
at a touch of the sun, and stand
as if you might not move again
as I did just now between platforms,
between trains: I stopped, was stopped
as sure as if someone had spoken my name.
All of which sounds more John Burnside than Philip Gross: stunning, shocking insight articulated in the plainest vocabulary. Gross’s complex turns-of-phrases are usually harder work than this, so this is a welcome chance to join him on a different level.
Story is a more obvious element this time around too. Catch plastic ducks with bamboo fishing sticks with Gross and his granddaughter, or watch out for swans (real this time) and catch a train with Gross alone (in a poem after Jean Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela). Not complete stories, or poems with prosaic writing, but poems with narratives which are easy to follow for a Philip Gross book and which conjure up a multitude of images and memories for the reader.
Speaking of memories, ‘Not Quite The Dark Ages’ enters a stage of early boyhood and makes the reader smile with rediscoveries. Not of school-yard crushes or the humanness of parents. More walkie-talkies and torturing insects. Distance is measured in gardens rather than metres and a conference table is laughable rather than makeshift. The year might be 1957 but there is nothing inaccessible here for anyone born after the ’50s. This is Phillip Gross the landlubber, yet his observation is impeccable, his digressions relevant, and the richness augmenting the familiar content will make the reader’s nostalgia a question: My childhood, not much different to the narrator’s, was equally fiercely vibrant?
like a spy, like a sapper, the maquis,
my face as blacked-up
as I dared — ducking, squeezing
through chinks till… a snag on my sleeve
that I’d fail to explain in the morning
when I flinched at a dog bark somewhere;
the smell of damp earth
against my cheek, grit
in my breath, no words for what
I was becoming, what my father
would have shuddered to see
If Later steps on Deep Field’s toes, the contusions are no bigger than a toddler’s baddy. This is less a focus on one subject, or one person, and more a tour of the dexterous poet’s family history, with plenty of poems which do not focus on people thrown in. The added elements are presented in shorter poems. Later is not a book of sequences, yet still it manages to be adhesive, each poem belonging, because Gross, as he always is, is consistently explorative. When topics change, or the style or the focus changes, his exploration remains intact, impregnable. And while the vocabulary might be easier on the eye, the fuel remains to keep these poems in motion long after the first reading.