From his collection Later, out in September, the poem ‘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?
Not Quite The Dark Ages
… nor quite the Enlightenment,
more like a small sketched country —
shall we say developing —
the modern and the feudal
leaning on your doorbell side by side
and which is the good news, which
the bad, you have to choose. So:
1957 – great
inventions. Like the wheel
scavenged from a buckled pram
that held the tramp’s stash in the Cutting.
Electricity: an old car battery
filched from Chris’s
uncle’s garage, for
the first experiments on life:
touch Plus and Minus to a worm’s
two pinkie-tips and see it thrash and coil.
an Army Surplus walkie-talkie,
squawk-crackling mouth-piece to ear-piece
like a submariner’s last dive dive dive
lost in the boom of mid-Atlantic
murk where Chris’s
might be still struggling to the surface
up a rope ladder of glittering bubbles.
Cargo cults, verging on magic. But this
was the small state I was,
bluffing for a place
at the conference table, two oil drums
and a plank, in next door’s garden shed.
The older boys swapped cigarette cards,
Players’ Navy Cut,
and strange diplomacies. I
came with a blueprint, inked in rather prettily,
for the atom bomb I was about to test.
The others sniggered, but uneasily.
I got to slip out at night
— well, mid-evening; night,
that was another country — on mission
to creep twenty gardens to Chris’s and back
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: me,
like a cartoon remake
of himself, what he’d kept,
he thought, safe, un-spoken in its own
dark age: a no one, anywhere: a refugee.
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