The Thirteenth Angel by Philip Gross review – on Earth and in heaven | Poetry


Mastery is what you would want in a 27th collection and that’s what you find at Philip Gross the thirteenth angel, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And while we’re counting, it seems worth adding that Gross is a poet who seeks to quantify the unquantifiable. In Psalm: You, he rushes to the question: “who can count the waves on the sea” and, at different times, marvels at the impossibility of counting – a reminder both of the mystery of things and of the little control we have over our lives. His easy and fluid ways with form contrast with his confrontational subject matter. He has a keen eye and writes more than ever to give meaning to the world in its inexplicable multiplicity.

Springtime in Pandemia brings back 2020 – the beauty of April weather and the alarm – and includes this lament: “If we could see each other / we could count.” In his opening poem, Nocturne: Information, Gross turns into a night watchman to share a waking, meticulously unselective view of Finsbury Park, north London, with cinderblock offices, Caribbean takeaways and billboards while ambitiously invoking the invisible. (uncountable?) digital landscape of which we are also a part. Halfway through, he vividly describes “ourselves as a bench,/as a whisper,” which comes across as a memory from another world or another type of poem.

Whenever you encounter his nature poems, they appear rigorously anti-romantic: strictly forbidden lyricism at the expense of truth. Ash Complaint in the Key of O is a fine and distressing poem, balanced between praise and complaint about a withering ash tree. And in his confident companion, Moon O, Gross asks the moon to stay away and defy human attempts to colonize it, describing the astronauts as “toddler-friendly” and “loose in their own home movies.” home “.

In Developing the Negatives, and elsewhere, Gross gives the darkness its due and defends the shadows:

“There is nothing passive about them, the shadows.

More energetic than us, they stretch, flex and shrink.

Wherever there is slight relief it is judiciously rationed and in the often dark, sometimes pedestrian and seemingly delusional world of this poetry, it is like a surprise and a delight that Gross is consumed by the subject of angels . In Scenes from the Lives of Stone Angels he wittily frees several stone angels in the story and in Paul Klee: the Later Angels celebrates the artist’s spindly pencil drawings – his view of angels less playful than that of Klee.

Angel spotting is, it seems, a metaphysical sport. And, finally, we meet his 13 unconventional angels gathered in an earthly choir. The first angel is “Of Breath”, reminding us that the movement of breath is “the closer you will come to the wings”. An angel of the Sublime follows, curiously caught up in the servant, likened to the “turn of steam” after the boiling of a kettle. And there’s a pleasantly barmy moment in which an angel (A Glassy Thing) is chased past a book store. To each his own angel.

Throughout, Gross’s lack of importance wins out: there’s an appealing intelligence about wanting to situate oneself (and others) as tiny figures in the landscape. And his final poem, Silence Like Rain, is beautiful – an intense exploration of silence at the edge of a wood that sends us back to the innumerable inexplicable: “…silence as particular/detailed and innumerable as pine needles “. It is all-encompassing: “The silence that is our entire habitation, here-ness, how this aquatic planet/thinks, breathes and speaks.”

Psalm: You by Philip Gross

who can count the waves on the sea, and
wave, say where it started… also number the rhythm

of every heart, my mud pulse in my cupped hand and the
in the chest of the greenfinch, found dazed

by the blow of false sky which was our window… the
also, number that, pulse on the scan,

the cluster of cells still undecided – to be bird or fish or
count their count to the end (would we

know that, from ourselves or from those who accompany us?) … who
our nursery rhymes, child to child in the dark,

our desire to call a wave a wave, discreet, as if we believed
at a time when a thing becomes a thing

distinct from the whole ocean, a continuity that You, if
we can use the word at all, must surely see, or be.

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