Feb 10 2023
Poetry review – THE THIRTEENTH ANGEL: Colin Pink admires the profound insights in this meditative collection by Philip Gross
The Thirteenth Angel is an outstanding collection. It is full of surprising yet spot-on imagery contained within a variety of forms; it is a work where the reader feels that the poet knows exactly what he is doing, while also exploring new territory.
The title of the collection immediately got me thinking of Rilke, whose Duino Elegies are populated by angels, and there is something similar in the two poets’ approaches. Often Gross’ poems felt to me quite Rilkean in their combination of vivid everyday imagery and existential themes focussed on the fragility of life and our own mortality.
I love the combination of long and short poems and the variety of forms employed in this collection. The stand-out poems, to me, were the long poems: ‘Nocturne: the Information’ (11 pages), ‘Smatter’ (17 pages), and ‘Thirteen Angels’ (11 pages). These are wonderful examples of how to structure, sustain and shape a long poem.
The collection opens with the superb ‘Nocturne: the Information’ which provides us with a birds-eye view of the city, in this case the Finsbury Park area of London, but it could be any large metropolitan centre with its crowded diversity of people and places. It begins with the poet, who can’t sleep, looking out, from a high window, over the city: ‘Night, wired and ticking. Not a wink / is not electric: sign to sign, the shut shops’ / half-sleep …’ He observes the traffic: ’Bin lorry, police car, bus: their roofs are coded / for the sky to read, / and me, from here. / A live flow diagram. The pulse of us.’
One of the pleasures in this poem is the way it looks on the page. It consists of 28 cantos of eleven lines each with a repeating pattern of full and split lines. For example:
Bank Holiday heat stokes up the street sound, windows open, people expanding to, beyond, the borders of their bodies. We are too much to take in, the night air is a relish of spice and charred meat, burger, best kebabs in London, Roti Joupa Caribbean Takeaway. We’re all night taxi, never quite the last bus. We’re too much to fit into the livelong day.
The stanzaic structure provides the poet with a striking yet flexible form in which to contain his observations of urban life.
Later, the poet witnesses from a nest of wet cardboard ‘… at dawn, / a man unfolded, straightened / what appeared to be a tie, and walked away.’ He notes how ‘The underworld’s arranged / not in circles but parallel: bus lane, cycle track, / walkway and, / motionless, the sleepers-in- / the-daytime, when it’s safer. Some worse than sleep.’
The poet nods off, wakes up and: ‘Outside, a roadblock: hazard lights, blue spinners / juggling their panic. / We may be the news, / an incident, already. Or not. It’s too soon to tell.’ Thoughts turn to mortality: ‘Old stories come back from the dead – of soul / as guest, at worst as hostage of the body’. Towards the end of the poem he reflects: ‘Now / isn’t the time for I-sing-the-body-electric / ecstasies. Sing / the body that’s weary, / sleepless, and a little scuffed, at 3 a.m.’ And that, of course, is what this stunning poem (worth the cover price on its own) has been all about.
‘Smatter’, the longest poem in the collection, is about a road trip across Europe, providing a smattering of observations of contemporary predicaments, with the poet in the role of ‘the curator of the chaff of things, all / the blown-away moments that nobody saw’, like the bugs squashed on a windshield. As he heads in one direction he imagines the plight of desperate refugees heading in the other direction: ‘the miles streaming back / east through the grille in the container / with its undeclared cargo of hope, / with scarcely air enough for one, / let alone the twenty…’.
On this journey we are all akin, in some ways, to those bugs splattered on a windscreen: ‘This smatter on the windscreen, / it’s the price we pay for speed, / for getting somewhere…’. We are all intent on some destination but are we really getting anywhere? The poem ends on a note of hope: ‘Road is a prayer in tarmac / to escape / from what comes after them, to live / in some direction, to recover what’s been lost’.
The collection ends with the beautiful long poem ‘Thirteen Angels’ which cycles through various manifestations of the angelic in life, as in the first canto: ‘The angel of breath pays you a visit, / every other second. Don’t look for it ouside; / it has already entered you’. Or the angelic might be a glassy thing, as in: ‘an angel – quite see-through, exquisitely ground. / Like a lens. What you see / is not it but through it, world refracted, clarified.’ But, we are warned: ‘Don’t try to clutch it. It / might shatter, and the splinters of it cut you / to the quick.’
It turns out angels are everywhere. ‘One Common Mistake / is to think they are rare, / the angels … It’s at the interfaces they appear – / between us, each and each other / and each and the tumult of things’. We might wonder if ‘the debris of those unregarded lives, / the words choked in their throats, / their fluent silences bricked in by noise, / could constitute an angel?’
The Thirteenth Angel is haunted by mortality, by the mess the world is in, but also by all the ways the beauty of the world slips through the mesh of experience, flickers on our sense and lives in our memories. It is a profound meditation on existence, to be relished and read again and again.