REVIEW by Suzannah V Evans

NWR Issue r19

A Bright Acoustic

by Philip Gross

Philip Gross’s A Bright Acoustic is a homage to the act of listening. These poems not only chart the varied noises that surround us, drawing attention to both urban and natural soundscapes, but they also resonate with their own sound-effects. Gross’ form is similarly striking, and his use of indented lines and white space fits well with his exploration of noise and silence, the empty spaces on the page echoing the ‘hundred shades of silence’ (Specific Instances of Silence) that Gross paints with his words.

Gross is sonically attuned not only to the natural environment, but to our place within it. Poems such as ‘Windfarm at Sea’ meld human construction and natural phenomena, so that wind turbines are pictured as ‘Wind flowers / in the mist’, ‘dark-grown, as spindly as whims’. The thin sounds of the repeated ‘i’s form a visual echo to the slim machines that are ‘unpicking the knot of the winds’, while other repetition in the poem imitates the unvarying turning of the turbine’s vanes, which are ‘three-petalled, unpeeling themselves: loves me / loves me not.’ The opening of his collection with a poem about wind also signals Gross’ interest in air, and in breath, the medium through which sound is carried.

Time in the Dingle, the stand-out poem sequence in the collection, also focuses on the ways in which sound can be carried, amplified, and distorted. Its lovely subtitles merge with the poems themselves and play off the other titles, so that ‘To the birds’ is followed by ‘… or the squirrel’, and ‘It writes itself,’ – with its unusually placed comma – and ‘This kind of drizzle-’ flow right into the beginning of the respective poems. Sound is foregrounded from the opening of the sequence:

Glassy, too, the acoustic.
Each droplet
like a hanging splinter, glinting
not with light
but sound, each bird-pitch, sudden, there

and there.

This is a very precise auditory attention, one which remarks ‘Each droplet’, turning an image that we would expect to be visual into an acoustic one. Sound is also woven into the layout of the poem, so that the spacing of the bird calls ‘there // and there’ imitates the different positioning of the sound as we would hear it in the dingle. Other sound resonances grace the poem, so that sparrows ‘hold still, fill / the whole bush with their stillness – / just the ping-trace of their calls / to stitch the world together.’ These small instances of rhyme, which Gross scatters across his poems like seed, catch the reader’s ears, making us aware of our own individual experiences of sound and harmony as we read about the acoustics of the wider world.

As well as picturing how we might respond to nature, and the streams and mud that ‘will / outlast us’ (‘A memory, then,’), Time in the Dingle also imagines how other living creatures might view us. ‘To the birds’ is a beautiful part of the sequence that recasts the poem’s attention to the birds’ ‘pitch’:

in the three dimensions of the dingle
I am flatfoot
down here in the silt.

At their pitch I am low
as underground, the premonition
of an earthquake. In their time I am slow

as a trilobite shuffling to my station
in Jurassic mudstone
even when I think I am running for the train.

While the birds can use the space of all ‘three dimensions’ of the dingle, their earthbound human observer is ‘flatfoot / down here in the silt’. In a world where animals are often viewed in relation to humans, rather than on their own terms, the poem refreshingly considers the ways birds operate with a different set of rules. In comparison to their flight and freedom, the human speaker is ‘low’, ‘slow’, and ‘shuffling’. ‘Jaunty and Jack-’, a poem later in the sequence, further draws attention to the ways in which we tend to anthropomorphise animals, judging them in terms of the human: ‘the voice of jackdaws. . . / We say voice’. ‘A damp May morning’ treats the topic with humour, picturing the sky as an ‘open- / plan office, with squeaky- / clean panes of something we can’t see’ for the birds.

Emphasis is also placed on our mortality. ‘Mist in the dingle’ from the same poetry sequence discusses ‘how brittle our time is / – hung // (we can guess but not see) / in the act / of dissolution’. The Same River: thirteen variations on Hericlitus, with its Wallace Stevens-inflected title, also traces the slippery nature of time, where ‘every moment waves goodbye to every other, / unreachable, in all / directions.’ Time is constantly changing, obliterating past moments and existing in a state of flux:

The thing is, Heraclitus,
that it’s over
as soon as, no,
before it strikes us. Each sensation.

That ‘no’ troubles the line, interrupting the speaker’s thought with the same speed it takes to realise that the present moment has become the past. The speaker also reflects how, standing in a river ‘not one single drop sticks around / to see we’re OK. We won’t be, // in the long view.’

What can we do, when faced with the bleak reality of our own impermanence? Perhaps one course of action, A Bright Acoustic seems to suggest, is to pay attention, to open our ears (as well as our eyes) to what is around us, particularly within the natural world. Philip Gross presents the act of listening as a complex and valuable way to interact with our surroundings, and his exploration of auditory perception, given the extremely visual culture that we live in, is welcome.

Suzannah V Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. She was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, Eborakon, the London Magazine, the ScoresTime PresentTears in the Fence, and elsewhere. She is Reviews Editor for The Compass and an AHRC Northern Bridge doctoral researcher at Durham University.

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