Linda Black reviews
by Philip Gross
I have always feared water for I can’t swim. Only yesterday I viewed its vastness, present and remote, through a bay window, as if my house were a ship. I turned away. The cover photo on Philip Gross’s T.S. Eliot prize winning collection – an estuary, storm clouds merging with the horizon of an endless ocean – evokes my dream. I shall suspend my fears, sail with the ‘Sluice Angel’ (the opening poem) through ‘the hall/of the world’ into water’s ‘unquiet body’. Here ‘dreams are not the mystery’, the waking is.
This is a themed collection based around the seascapes of the Severn; a reflective, meditative body of work, investigating with intensity and integrity our existence in the natural world. The language is controlled and resonant, with much assonance and internal rhyme, skilled use of line/verse breaks and extended syntax. Forms vary, from free verse to sonnet to villanelle, to the concrete form of ‘Amphora’. Poems seep into each other: ‘Herinunder’ begins with ‘the sound of water/not heard’, reflecting the previous poem ‘Betweenland VII’ (there are ten of these poems dispersed throughout) in which the estuary is ‘not a mouth, but an ear.’
‘Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA’, subtitled seven descants on ground, a sequence of linked sonnets, starts in an unlikely place, ‘a world, born of economics of sale, ground rent/need and desire’ where ‘billboards plead Dream this’ . The sequence meanders (‘which is anything/but indirection’), shifts ground, becomes Folk Song; Shakespearian; Medieval:
‘…Where the lost streams are.
The ground’s half water like us. Piss on the wall,
slops from the window. It accepts us, one and all.’
Our world, a ‘small craft’, comes through ‘water’s body/that seems to have a mind (and change it: isn’t that what makes/a mind, its changing?)’ Water is ambiguous – seen, unseen, without, within. ‘Our bodies/feel the way it’s tending.’ The speaker is concerned also with our subconscious mind. In sleep, our body drifts on; our heart will carry us home ‘steady as we go’.
Through communion with the natural world - river, rain, sea, silt, mud, clay - its shifts and flux, a space opens up within the ‘I’ to receive, to experience awe and wonder, here, now. As a crewman lassos a bollard, ‘judges the -/now ’, hauls in ‘That dream-/like weight-/lessness of steel’ , the poet attempts to capture the moment: ‘And here I am, and now …and then/ and then again…’ as if to remind himself of his existence. In parts, the writing is like a prayer. The ‘mute lumps’ washed up on the beach, in ‘Almost Alabaster’, ‘blotched and liver spotted’, are ‘beautiful impurities’. These are gifts: ‘these are for us.’
Occasionally, the ‘I’ is clearly personalised:
‘…out/where the Severn is letting, has let/itself go into sea banks like thought into sleep’, the poet sees ‘in the narrow focus of my father’s old field-glasses ’ what he imagines his father having seen, ‘a place that is not/for owning, most there only when you look away.’ (‘The Moveable Island’)
Before the present came the past, ‘a river underneath the river’ (‘Betweenland IX’) ‘a memento of itself, or what/ we had forgotten we’d forgotten’. As with homeopathic remedies, water holds traces ( they grow ‘like memory, by absence’ ) of our ancestors as far back as the Ice Man, ‘the ice in him still weeping’.
The effects are cumulative – in the end, I am reminded of different fears; ‘We are no more than a smudge of smoke on the horizon’ : our own vanishing point.
Linda Black is a British poet.