In his nineties Philip Gross’s father, a wartime refugee, began to lose his several languages, first to deafness, then profound aphasia. Deeply thought as well as deeply felt, these poems reach into that gulf to find him – through recovery of histories both spoken and unspoken as well as an excavation of the spoken word itself. Readers who admired Philip Gross’s subtlety and range in his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table will find those qualities brought to a new human urgency in the compelling sequences of Deep Field. Published by Bloodaxe in November 2011, Deep Field, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year) in 2012.
Victoria Field reviews Deep Field in Lapidus Journal:
The cover image of Philip Gross’s new collection shows the Hubble Deep Field, a keyhole view of the universe, taken by the Hubble telescope. It’s a tiny speck of sky which reveals thousands of galaxies in deepest space, all at different stages of development. The image is both beautiful and bewildering; showing something unimaginably large and complex and, simultaneously, tiny, representing just a two millionth part of the total sky.
The mind, with its ability to hold memory and convey thoughts in language is also a deep field, full of mystery and strangeness. We can only guess at its structure and content. We know that the mind is dependent on the brain and that organic damage, whether from stroke, dementia or accident, can cause various kinds of aphasia, the technical term for language impairments. Like the astronomers with their telescope, Philip Gross shows us the effects of aphasia in his father, such as difficulty in remembering words – ‘you’d lost barley’; echolalia, a tendency to repeat what someone else says – ‘a bat-vault full of panicked rags of words’; or speaking nonsense – ‘words in no language but a style of hesitation’; and needing to sing but ‘not prettily’. But more than that, he takes us into a world of twentieth century and personal history, of his own emotional responses to the aphasia, the shifting qualities of the universe and the natural world, all conveyed in daring, memorable and confident poems.
One definition of a human being is that we are story-making creatures. The sharing of stories is one of the ways in which we build relationships. Philip Gross, an only child of his wartime refugee father from Estonia, grew up ‘fluent in English and silence’. His father spoke five languages, but in his nineties, began to lose them – he ‘stared through a sixty year gap in the trees,/ … out into the fields/ (all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)// of wordlessness.’ Philip Gross said in an interview:
I knew there was something not being said. He had just emerged from years of trauma in his life, and the last thing he wanted to do was pass that on.I suspect the untold stories of parents are often what sting us into writing poetry. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘every poem breaks a silence’. Tony Harrison put it memorably in his four-liner, Heredity:
How you became a poet’s a mystery!Philip Gross remembers how his father would ask him what he was working on and now how he would have to answer,
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry –
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
Building your memorialTheodore Roethke wrote that ‘in a dark time the eye begins to see’ – in a time of silence or incoherence, the poet begins to write. A prolific writer in many different genres, Philip Gross has already written about a distressing family experience, his daughter’s anorexia, in The Wasting Game (1998). Since then, he has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his brilliant study of the River Severn, The Water Table, in which his subject and the language he uses to describe it, come together remarkably. The same can be said of Deep Field. Ostensibly a book ‘about’ his father’s loss of language, Deep Field uses this theme as a way of exploring the ways in which language, something generated from within us, relates to the outer world, both in how it denotes experience and reality, and how it mediates relationships.
like something grand raised out of rubble,
out of the redundant stuff of
Perhaps this can only be done in poetry. In poetry, something is constructed from words but also from silence and, in a book, from space on the page. We have a sense in Deep Field of words losing their moorings, and becoming, even as they describe his father, an echo of the natural world that permeates the collection. Whilst still clearly the building blocks of poems, the words behave in new and unexpected ways, as if autonomous of the poet. They shift themselves to the right and create a constellation that looks like lace on the page, coalesce into diamonds or droplets, or form the shape of a breaking wave.
The poems in this collection are not all immediately accessible but on reading and re-reading, I found myself drawn into a world of retreating galaxies, constantly changing seascapes and that familiar tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when a word we know is ‘in there’ becomes fugitive and shy. Philip Gross ‘grew a stammer/ that said something too’ – another layer of complex engagement with language. I was also taken on a emotional journey from first learning about John, his life and his aphasia, to eventually feeling viscerally the huge loss that has taken place, for both him and his son. There is something matter-of-fact about the crossword puzzle described in the opening poem that reminds me of how, often, men make connections with each other through engaging with an external entity – crossword, car, football. The poem explores the word ‘scry’, a ‘word to peer into’ that can be turned ‘round in my hands // this crystal ball, this cryptic syllable’. It has an old meaning of second sight, of psychic divination and the speaker of the poem is attempting to solve a puzzle, the crossword his father used to ‘unpick seamlessly’ and also the bigger and more intractable mystery of how to relate to his father.
The collection has several sequences, three titled Something Like The Sea and one, Vocable, in 28 parts. They take the reader deep into an exploration of language and voice, spoken, groaned, involving other family members and the body in its expression. Philip Gross employs a multiplicity of forms, both in the sequences and the individual poems. The latter sometimes gave me the sensation of the poet, like a whale or dolphin, coming to the water’s surface to draw breath, before diving down once again into a sequence exploring the unfathomable depths of his father’s aphasia.
The last poem in the collection is painful, arranged in stanzas of short lines and few syllables with a dramatic economy of style. The whole, long, complex father-son relationship, and a human life from beginning to end, are conveyed through a simple touching of hands, the tender way in which a parent guides the first steps of a child.
At the heart of this moving and intriguing collection are the mystery of life and its relationship with language. The recurring image of the sea is not always comforting – Philip Gross grew up not far from the wild North coast of Cornwall and knows how it can be ‘uneasy, ulterior, insatiably // lightless’. Language is at its mercy. There are ‘purposes / beyond us’ which, like the far galaxies of the Deep Field are ‘out beyond words beyond / most memory’.
This book speaks directly to the heart of Lapidus concerns with how language can convey, transcend and re-enchant human experience. Philip Gross has not only honoured his father but created something of great beauty and wonder out from those final wordless years.
one-week workshop with Graham Hartill in November 2012 at which Philip Gross will be the guest reader.
This review was first published in Lapidus Journal, Spring 2012 Vol 6: Issue 2, an online publication covering writing, reading, health and wellbeing. Recent articles have looked at the role of writing in prisons, healthcare and professional training; bibliotherapy and poetry therapy; writing and ecology; cultural and theoretical perspectives; personal views on experiences of writing. Subscription to the Lapidus Journal is £30 per year via membership of Lapidus, the networking and information organisation for all interested in the field - see link for details.
From the reviews of Deep Field:
'A powerful and tender successor to the T.S. Eliot prize-winning The Water Table… The writing is sinewy, urgent and resourceful. This poet is a master of form, deploying his visual and aural patterns for emphasis, as if the page were a musical score… The collection evokes an essence of what it is to be human, the sense of both wonder and estrangement, our place within science, the sheer oddness of who we are. Deep Field is as strong in celebration as in lamentation. With language as its theme, it soars linguistically' – Michael Symmons Roberts & Moniza Alvi, PBS Bulletin.
'Philip Gross's previous collection, the T.S. Eliot Prize-winning The Water Table, suggested a deepening vision based on focused contemplation of the world and our place - or lack of place - within it. This new collection takes us deeper still, sustaining with extraordinary virtuosity a series of meditative variations on the related themes of language and wordlessness, human existence and the loss of identity’ – Jem Poster, Planet.
Extracts from 'Something Like The Sea':
from PART I
Washed up at the tideline these days,
in Estonian, German, Russian, history
ditched out at sea
between coasts sixty years ago —
too much, too
heavy, you said later, what child
could need it —
languages I never heard you speak
and so I grew
bilingual in English and silence,
grew a stammer
that said something, too.
One day you woke to find that you’d lost barley.
Oats. Wheat. Tried each of your five languages
and nothing answered to its name.
You stared through a sixty-year gap in the trees,
past the farmhouse, out into the fields
(all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)
of wordlessness. What you were seeing there
wasn’t nothing. This one… You tensed
your fingers, upwards. And this…
Your fingers tremble-dangled. ‘Oats?’ Yes!
Yes. And that itching-and-scratching
down the back of your neck:
threshed husks in the shade of the barn. Later
hordeum and triticum came to you, then
some English, some Estonian.
But you’d been back there, in the gone place,
absolutely, with each Ding an sich.
You’d been it, and no words between.
from PART II:
On the shores of Lake Aphasia
mist seeps upwards, early morning, in fine strands
like milk in water. Almost Japanese.
In some Zen light, or Pure Land,
we might see it so:
white paper, the more eloquent;
measuring the distance between this and this.
I wish I could say
‘We sat for half an hour in silence.
Nothing needed to be said.’
It isn’t true. You can’t stop
rattling a box of empty syllables
while something needs, it cries out,
for the saying. Is this it?
I write on your word-pad, I
mime. Is it this? Or this?
Help me! Who looking in
the window now could say
which of us was the one deprived of speech?
All this way
by single rail track
through the forest,
by truck and by footslog,
by the last boat left
and leaving, by nights
in the open and years’
hiatus, Nacht und Nebel,
fog of someone else’s
war. All this way
to arrive at an impasse
here, sixty years on, caught
in a sentence you can’t finish,
your good neighbour
backing away, first nodding
then shaking his head
at unstoppable word-slur.
You’re touching his arm
and he flinches
as if from the cling
of cobweb. All this way
to learn a life, to pass
through checkpoints, not to wear
the marks of silence on you
(like the names
not to be mentioned
in your censored letters home —
they’d leave their stain
on those you loved). All
this long way
to be a foreigner again.
from PART III
in a flicker of gunfire (off to one side;
I believe you when you said you never fought);
caught in a war
of three sides and not one
to call your own; and when the dreadful music
on the wrong side of the line
through Europe that the powers at Yalta ruled;
caught out of place;
caught in the zone, with transport waiting
to a bone mine in the Urals when the deadline fell; caught
wind of that
and walked, walked west and long;
caught out by sunrise in the wrong sort of uniform,
of a scarecrow in a turnip field,
gave thanks for its coat and tatty britches; snagged
for a moment
when the snare of history pulled tight
you jerked free, torn somewhat, never quite mended but
Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University. He has published seven books with Bloodaxe, including Deep Field (2011), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year); The Water Table (2009), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; The Egg of Zero (2006); Mappa Mundi (2003), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation; and Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (2001), his selection from earlier books including The Ice Factory, Cat’s Whisker, The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, I.D. and The Wasting Game. His book I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press, 2009), a collaborative work with photographer Simon Denison, won the Wales Book of the Year Award 2010. He is also the author of ten highly-praised novels for young people.
His poetry for children includes Manifold Manor, The All-Nite Café (winner of the Signal Award 1994), Scratch City and Off Road To Everywhere (winner of the CLPE Award 2011). Since The Song of Gail and Fludd (1991) he has published nine more novels for young people, most recently The Storm Garden (2006).
Born in Cornwall, he lived in Bristol and Bath for many years, and now lives in Penarth in South Wales.