Sunday, November 07, 2010
The Water Table
On Monday last week I went to see Philip Gross reading from The Water Table and interviewed by Simon Armitage, one of the judges who awarded this book the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize. They both noted that water has been a dominant element in recent recipients of this award - in 2007 it went to Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, which has been described as 'a municipal reworking of Alice Oswald's Dart', another T. S. Eliot Prize winner in 2002. The Water Table is inspired by the Severn Estuary, a place of 'stillness and energy' known on one shore as the Bristol Channel and on the other as Môr Hafren (the Severn Sea). Poems like 'Sluice Angel', 'Bridge Passages' and 'Severn Song' describe the rivers shifting channels, the continual flux of water and mud, the forty-foot tide of 'liquid solid as rock' the gulls converging out to sea. Ten poems called 'Betweenland' look at the water in different ways - as a mouth debouching our secrets, as an ear amplifying distance, as a mind constantly changing and, at sunset, a place for 'the draining down of daylight, westwards and out of the world.'
Gross has said that a poem is "a piece of extraordinary attention" and last week he talked of the importance of looking for a long time at something until it yields a poem. This reminded me of Merleau-Ponty's description of Cézanne, studying his motif, which I mentioned here before in connection with Charles Tomlinson (a poet Philip Gross sometimes resembles). I thought it would sound too pretentious at a poetry reading to ask Philip Gross about phenomenology or Merleau-Ponty, so I cannot say whether there is a direct connection. Perhaps a general one though - in the New York Review recently the poet Durs Grünbein was quoted as saying that artists are "an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries." When I read Philip Gross's meditations on the action of water (like his poem 'Pour') I thought of those short phenomenological prose poems in which Francis Ponge conveyed the 'voices of things' (writing that led him to be described by Italo Calvino as 'the Lucretius of our time'). In C. K. Williams' translation, one of Ponge's poems begins: 'The rain I watch fall in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos. In the centre it's a fine discontinuous curtain (or net), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of fairly light drops, a lethargic, everlasting precipitation, a concentrated fragment of the atmosphere. Near the left and right walls, heavier, individual drops fall more noisily. Here they seem the size of a grain of wheat, there of a pea, elsewhere almost of a marble...' And so it goes on, until the description reaches a natural conclusion, the sun comes out and 'all soon vanishes...'
Towards the end of the evening Simon Armitage asked in jest if Gross did "requests" and, if so, whether he would read the poem 'Globe', in which a whole world is reflected in the sphere of a newel post. Gross politely declined to take him up on this, but if we had been encouraged to call out for our favourites in some raucous display of appreciation I would have shouted "Designs for the Water Garden!" It describes a set of imaginary gardens that would appeal I think to Gardenhistorygirl and readers of BLDGBLOG and Pruned. The first features a set of glass stepping stones that allow one to walk on water 'when a low mist frosts the lake'. The second is a 'rain-gazebo' in which rain is deliberately allowed to fall through a ceiling well and into a floor grille, 'passing through, a slim visitor'. The third involves a salmon treadwheel, the fourth a mist maze, the fifth a 'slow gusher' of eels, pouring across the lawn. The sixth, a 'flood-feature', requires us to contemplate the aftermath of a 'the water-beast dragging its bulk through the garden' and the seventh, most magical of all, imagines a 'water-glass lens through which you can see only water' revealing ourselves to be 'lattices of mostly water, flowing side by side.'