Philip Gross and Don Paterson write about water, history and the meaning of words. Both poets are due to read at the Stanza festival (16-20th March).

The Water Table

Philip Gross, in his 2009 T.S. Elliot Prize winning collection The Water Table, has gathered a group of poems that might have proved stronger if they could manage to swim out of their own structures. Throughout the collection, which takes the Severn Estuary (and a mix of other real and imaginative water-geographies) as its crux, it feels as though the poems need to emerge from their aquatic environs and take a breath. I’m well aware that the entire collection is not meant to take place underwater, but at times I feel as though I’m up to my nose in an estuary full of strangely shaped, lichen-covered rocks.

Some might argue this is the proof of the poets greatness; that I should count myself lucky for feeling so physically enmeshed in the object’s of Gross’ imaginative landscape. Often, I just feel claustrophobic. ‘Almost Alabaster,’ a rich catalogue describing “Mudstone, grey-green and oxblood,/ dun crusts of limestone interleaved/and a wavering white-dotted-tide-line, somewhere between centuries…”, finds me engaged by this strange documentation and obsessive hyphenation of words, but leaves me wondering what there is to find in this list of “white, buff, pink chunks… sucked sweeties, coarse peppermint, coconut/ ice…” other than the language of a kind of collector of natural objects. They build up in his spare rooms. Why should we look at them?

While I think Gross’ strengths are often on display, the most obvious aspect of this ambitious book is what it limits – not what it allows. The problem is inherent to a project that follows a single thread; a concept album can easily burn itself out. Gross’ book does seem to be a kind of concept album, built around bodies of water, islands and between spaces. While imaginative and geographic variety is not this collections greatest strength,  Gross’ quiet voice is a strong one. The series ‘Betweenland’, which consists of ten poems, is the spine of the collection. The placid beauty that is his greatest strength is evident here, especially in ‘Betweenland I’ where the description of a “body of water; water’s body” resolves in the water’s desire “to lose itself in absolute reflection.” The clever ordering of stanzas is subtle, with a couplet dividing a mirrored structure (get a poem – now hold it up to a mirror or a still lake). Gross’ voice, characteristically assured of the importance of asking a question rather than putting on the “I’m-a-wise-old-man” voice, asks us, “isn’t that what makes/ a mind, its changing?” The title is indicative of where Gross wants to take his readers, as this collection reminds us that we are inhabitants of ‘between’ spaces (an estuary being the perfect example of this).

Perhaps what I want from Gross is something that he cannot give me—bold confrontation. What I do feel confronted by is his understanding of the role of silence in poetic creation. His poetic voice is integrated into his landscape, and his landscape then begins constructing its own metaphors and speaking (“the water said earth and the water said sky”). Gross is wonderfully absent in much of this. He knows when to speak. He also knows when to let his land do the talking.

 ‘Betweenland VI’ represents a quality of voice that I would like to hear more of in Gross—one that he seems evidently capable of but somehow resistant to: a speaker or a voice that reaches further out to the reader. I don’t want to be accosted, but a little bit of second person harassment never hurt anyone; sometimes a great collection really bruises you. Gross’ speaker reaches out to me and says “even the Vikings/ left just the hull of a word: Holm./ Make of that sound what you will.” Something oddly personal about this address left me reeling. Holm is a Norse word that could be used to describe an island, an islet or an area of dry land between marshes. But Gross isn’t asking us what it means; he’s asking us how it sounds. So much can be implied by a homophone. Try saying it out loud a few times.

David Swensen 


In my family, the tradition still runs that reading poetry at Christmas is advised, if not required. This, I know, is a rare thing for a family – it just so happens that my family loves the sound of its own voice. Poetry will be read aloud at Christmas, perhaps Easter and sometimes a birthday. However, the poetry read will rarely, if ever, exceed the limits of the nineteenth-century. When it does come from the twentieth-century it will never break the banks of the second world war and on the exceptionally seldom cases that it does, it was unintentional. And if you asked my family when they thought the poem was from they would assume it was earlier than it was anyway. The idea of a twenty-first century poet being read aloud to them would seem painfully avant-garde. This is, perhaps, where Don Paterson’s greatest strength lies and why it is little surprise that the dominant image of his 2009 collection Rain is one drawn from cinema.

“I love all films that start with rain,” the poem surges through the empty metaphysical spaces of the darling medium of this century and our generation. In a small way, it seeks to reconcile past and present. Other poems of fusion such as ‘Two Trees’ seem acutely aware of the role of the reader in poetry as Paterson himself noted at last years’ Stanza festival, in spite of the line “trees are all this poem is about,” that is of course not true. It came as little surprise to me that he preceded this poem, aware of its own necessary interactivity, with an anecdote about playing an Xbox.

Paterson’s poetry, while not restrained through consistent links with the present, does seem to be aware of a bridging of gaps. Poetry has become, in the family home, in the pub, in the street, something to be avoided (although perhaps not the London underground). Paterson’s blending of the poetic with a particularly modern, dry cynicism such as in his book of aphorisms The Blind Eye where he delivers the timeless witticism:

“Whenever he saw someone reading a bible, he would spoil it for them by whispering, ‘He dies in the end, you know.’ I’m always tempted to do the same to anyone I see consulting their diary.”

His language dissolves the need for crypticism that poetry has fought with and, now, seemingly won. And I think it is this care for the modern, for today, that makes his poetry not just accessible but relevant. It is something rare, something uncommon. If you briefly consider an equally witty and almost as lauded poet, Billy Collins: his poem ‘Forgetfulness’ strikes as many chords in the heart of its reader.

Yet there is something not quite as human about Collins’ work, not quite as willing to admit that he listens to Venetian Snares (Love Poem for Natalie ‘Tsuja’ Beridze) or indeed that he, as previously mentioned, plays video games. There is something of blood about Paterson, that prevented a good friend of mine being unsurprised in a closed reading session with Paterson when he remarked on how he could smell his audience. It is his humanity which makes me believe that my father could read his work and think more rapidly of Billy Connolly than T.S. Eliot. Without knowing my family, you may regard that an insult. To be blunt, it is not. Paterson’s ability in Rain to fuse together this modern sensibility and imagery of not just everyday but today with a timeless poetic turn of phrase makes his work the stuff of performance, suitable in all areas; as suitable at a Christmas dinner table as it is in the crowded theatre.

Conor McKeown


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