Philip Gross – The Wasting Game 1994-1998
by Jay Clark
Philip Gross is a Quaker and a poet. When talking about his poetry in the radio programme ‘listen to them breathing’ he described having been a Quaker and a poet for a long time, but only recently seeing where these two areas of his life join.
The poems in this collection are not overtly Quaker poems, but some seem fed by Quaker language, as in the book’s opening poem, ‘Visiting Persephone’. Here Gross imagines Zeus visiting Persephone in the underworld, as a father visits his daughter in hospital. It is a place where the god has no power, and when Persephone doesn’t talk ‘her silence is a waiting room where he sits and is not called for’. Describing silence as a waiting room strikes me as a Quaker image, drawing on the idea of waiting in silence for God. But in this poem the waiting is desolate, no sign of hope comes and he leaves, still powerless.
‘Visiting Persephone’ is an extraordinary and wrenching poem that contains within it the seeds of the ‘Wasting Game’ series that concerns Gross’s daughter’s anorexia; it is piercingly sad and beautifully understated, and seems to contain all the messy unravelling of his daughter’s condition detailed in the poems that deal with her anorexia directly. Ending with the lines: ‘how could he have imagined he was any sort of god? How could he have imagined this at all?’, it frames the later poems within this image, of the once-powerful father who can’t do anything to help.
The collection is filled with images of slipping away, wasting away, people leaving little evidence of their existence if any at all. In the second series of poems, called ‘A Liminal State’ and concerning a trip to Estonia in 1994, the images of wasting continue. In ‘Forest Brother’, Gross describes the last resistance fighter against the Soviet occupation drowning himself in 1979 after being caught on camera by the KGB. He reflects on the last but one forest brother, never photographed and ‘so much more rare, because he could be anyone’. The second-last forest brother left no evidence of his existence at all, and Gross seems to marvel at the impossibility of this – even the worms leave wormcasts on the beach in the poem ‘Beach Party’. While in one ‘Wasting Game’ poem he might imagine his disappearing daughter whipping off her sweater and vanishing away, the truth is not so neat. She leaves evidence of her existence in ‘the egg we found rotting in the body-folds of the sofa’, as in ‘Imago’ they look for hawk moth caterpillars and find instead a ‘blood-brown drip in the husk where one vanished’.
Repeated throughout the poems are images of puckering and scarring, scratched surfaces and desiccated interiors. Scars on Persephone’s arms are mirrored in scars on the base of plinths, on which ‘a clutch’ of Lenins used to stand. One poem in ‘The Wasting Game’ begins: ‘I could hate those frail maids fading beautifully in books’, describing his anger at the stories of women elegantly and bloodlessly wasting away, and how romantic they make it all sound. The dreary, smeared images of blood-brown drips and mushroom-smelling breath seem made to guard against this kind of romanticising, tempering the beauty of much of his language. A similar kind of guarding seems at work in the ‘Liminal State’ poems, in which deliberately ugly-sounding lines like the opening: ‘Five Aeroflot sky-tubs by the lumpy runway’ seem to warn against romanticising Estonia’s Soviet past.
Gross is far from a grotesque poet, and poems such as the ‘nature studies’ series provide some relief from the tormented bodies that preoccupy this collection. Several of the poems also have moments that are quietly funny, such as the description of Cuban posters on student walls, falling down in the night ‘with a throat clearing sound, like a more tactful hint than we deserved’. The Wasting Game is a subtle and compassionate collection, and one that scratches at tender spots. But although Gross discomfits he doesn’t alienate, instead drawing the reader closely into his densely mapped stories, that are lightened by beautifully startling images.