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Guest Review: Brinton On Gross

Ian Brinton reviews
by Philip Gross and Simon Denison

A recently published essay by Peter Makin on the work of the octogenarian Midlands poet, Roy Fisher, was titled ‘The Hardness of Edges’ and it opens in such a way as to shed light on what Philip Gross has achieved in his series of poems from Cinnamon Press:

When the total contents of each micro-package of similar wavelength reaching me distinctly (from this leaf, or from that greenhouse window-pane) are evenly diffused over the whole surface of the retina, then I can no longer see; I am effectively blind. This can be achieved (a) by placing a ground-glass plate before the face, (b) by cataract.
We depend absolutely on the distinction of this from that; our lives depend on it.

Gross’s poems complement the distinctive photography of Simon Denison’s industrial landscapes: both photographs and poems are measures of distinctions. Both poems and photographs cohere within the covers of the book without the distinct differences of each being forfeited. The collection is introduced by George Szirtes who emphasises the meticulous and thoughtful way in which Gross responds to Denison’s pictures:

What Denison presents—the dark rootings of steel and concrete; the feeling of something slamming into the earth, establishing its narrow vocabulary of grass, stone, mould, leaf, strut, and the strange, focused moony chill that freezes everything—moves through the clarity, steadiness and humaneness of Philip Gross’s verbal imagination to create something new.

The pictures themselves require a moment of introduction so that the reader’s position can be made more precise. They are all photographs of pylons taken with a homemade box made of mountboard, duck-taped to a 6x6cm film back, with a pinhole drilled in the front, and a piece of black tape for a shutter. This pinhole camera contained no lens, no viewfinder, no technology except for the film itself and it was positioned at the same distance of an arm’s length from the foot of each pylon. The poet then responded to the photographer’s invitation ‘to tease out some of their suggestive possibilities’ provoked by the results, possibilities that Gross was to term ‘the meditative single-mindedness’ of the pictures, producing a series of sonnets which range across a variety of visual presentation.

          Seeing only seeing

is the hush that comes upon us
in the camera obscura

round the battered
shallow bowl of a world

with woods and wind and
people seething in it.

Seeing them not seeing

we’re the back row
of the silent picture palace,

the usherette’s torch,
the zippo spark,

the cigarette tip glowing
here in Plato’s cave.

The images themselves are haunting and one of Gross’s achievements in these poems is his ability to capture a wonderful sense of the unknown, the undiscovered, what is there if you keep looking and keep believing:

That seeing and believing
are a structure, cross-struts of each other…
How such slender underpinnings

can support a span…Let us consider

girders: say belief is the vertical
out of our ken, cross-braced
by slim physical evidence

or conversely that it is sense

stretches off away to smallness
that’s much like immensity, and only
the story that we hold

ourselves to be in holds us
pulsing slightly in the wind

And so, looking closely at the foot of a pylon might on the one hand make us consider a ‘hoard’ (‘These faint discs like coins of the realm/unearthed: rough chieftains with a face/they looted from the Romans, emblem/of a cursive horse, or in this case/the planted feet of pylons, meaning my/hillside my power my kingdom…’) or we might be prompted to reflect upon the world tree from Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, where the human world is found in the tree’s lower branches. Some vision may pursue a less fruitful path and the poem ‘Via Negativa’ opens with a negative

                                                This is not
say, a surgical boot or a calliper,
not a clog or mud-clagged wellie,

where the language itself has a reluctance to move forward, held back by the sounds of the repeated ‘cl’ and the emphatic ‘not’.

One of the most eerie of these poetic reflections is titled ‘Pylon In The Mist’ where the very presentation of the title has a pylonic structure to it! The photograph presents us with a pylon standing tall, seeming to lean slightly forwards and shadowed by its doppelganger in the mist whose arms and legs take on the force of mocking imitation, a trick of the light:

          Forget these club-foot underpinnings.
My mind’s somewhere higher. Can you follow

me up to where I strip down to geometry?
To where the proof of a theorem must be true

because elegant. Not a nut or bolt for show,
but each pleat and dart of the stress field

traced on the mist in rust-painted steel,
like an intellectual necessity. Essential

me, out in all weathers wearing nothing
but my purpose—as ascetic, ideal

and myself as a bare tree in winter. Possessed
by a certain charisma—can you hear it,

power, everywhere and nowhere, its dry
crackling in the cloud around my head?

There is a memory here of Leonardo’s mathematical tracings of humanity, skeleton and geometry combining. There is also an echo of the outcast Edgar from King Lear who ‘with presented nakedness’ outfaces ‘The winds and persecutions of the sky’. The picture possesses an extraordinary sense of pathos as the blurred vision in a mist suggests movement and the angling forward, arms stretching outward from the body, conveys a giant’s lurch as he steps across a world of darkened trees.

This wonderful little volume made me think of the world of Objectivism in the 1930s and Charles Reznikoff’s two-line stanza from ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ (1934):

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Here the existence of the girder is highlighted by the busy-ness of the words surrounding it. With the opening seven words there is a feeling of the accumulation of rubbish and the sound of the last three words seals off the image at the centre: ‘lies/A girder, still itself’ with its further definition teased by the pun on the word ‘still’. George Oppen wrote about being ‘Incapable of contact/Save in incidents’ and he was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff. In a letter dated February 1959 to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister, he wrote about those two Reznikoff lines:

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.

I suspect that were George Oppen alive today he would recognise the value of what Philip Gross has tried to achieve and admire the quality and workmanship of the result.

Ian Brinton is a scholar and critic who reviews regularly for Eyewear.
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