Philip Gross’s Later follows his much praised collection Deep Field, and the T.S. Eliot prize-winning The Water Table. Largely inspired by the difficult final years he spent alongside his father, this collection moves through the complex traumas of the failing body, and the creeping uncertainty of the mourning process, towards a tentative interaction with the raw and complex emotions that constitute the essential nature of our humanity. Throughout the collection, Gross’s stanzas incorporate parenthesised lines – personal interjections that function like asides, providing intermittent and oftentimes intimate commentaries in his poems. Often Gross uses these lines to impart detail, giving the impression that he is breaking away from the verse in order to speak more directly to the reader. Alternately, one can imagine the reader overhearing the poet’s own thought process as he attempts to more emphatically and vividly express his experience. This technique is used effectively throughout; for example, in the following stanzas which are taken from one of my favourite poems of the collection – “In High Care”:
I’m within the gradual
devolution of this body,
even less sure than you seem (as you scratch, in a vague
where sticky-pads itch;
a mosquito has settled, steel proboscis in a vein;
you swat at it) – less sure
as I take your hand
to stay it, just at what point you begin or end.
These parenthesised lines not only serve to enrich Gross’s poetry with a more immersive and tactile sense of detail, but they also feature rhetorical questions and snippets of internal narrative, all of which complement the personal and self-reflexive poetics. Consistently in these poems, Gross provides a focalising perspective, which is made vivid and sharp through means of his perceptive imagery and diction. In Later, language is more than a simple series of descriptors, it is a continual theme – a conduit through which the poet may explore his own experiences and invite the reader to experience them also. Gross does not simply build a world around us, but draws us into one which is both poignant and difficult, assured yet full of questions. Gross’s poetry does not solely imply focus upon debilitation, but also upon the natural world. Throughout the latter half of the collection, the poet uses the weather, as well as various elements such as fire and water, as the bases for his poems, such as in “Phlogiston”:
How does fire do it – prop
the ladder of itself against the air,
then climb it?
I must study this, in passing.
twig in the embers
flexes, as if waking.
It fills from the inside
as with sap, with the burning.
You could almost believe it: Fire
is a kind of life; life is a kind of fire.
Fittingly named after an obsolete elemental theory, which postulated the existence of an inherent element of combustibility, this poem effectively brings together two of the dominating themes of the collection: the natural world and human experience, or rather, human inexperience. Gross’s poetry is unafraid of vulnerability and naivety; he succeeds in projecting a sense of idiosyncratic sensitivity upon the page. His discerning use of syntax and poetic form offers his readers perceptive and nuanced glimpses into his own life and experience which extend beyond the personal and subjective, and which culminate in a collection of empathic images.
Gross’s style is both muted and vibrant, exploring the sensibility of human experience in a responsive and fluctuating manner. While it can be, at times, freckled with ellipses and dashes, and abundant with enjambments which gently tug the reader through the poet’s thoughts, Later is by no means a stream of consciousness. From the sorrow and silence of his father’s final years, Gross has managed to capture a vivid linguistic testament – contemplative and embellished with a sense of raw poetic instinct.