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Philip Gross: a poem

Philip Gross writes:

"There are poets who disapprove of giving any introduction to a poem. I'm not one of them. The life of a poem, like that of a person, is enriched by knowing something of its context, its place in the world.

A few facts, then... Last year I visited my refugee father's birthplace for the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The small, briefly independent Estonia experienced three occupations in the course of the 1939-45 war, by the Soviet Union, the Germans and the Soviet Union; the last of those continued for the next half century. The monument, on the outskirts of Tallinn, is to the victims of that occupation, killed or deported into labour camps. Several members of my family are among the 22,000 names.

That would be moving enough, but so was seeing that the grandiose Soviet memorial next door is undisturbed; there is even a small plot with crosses for the Nazi war dead. Beyond the circumstances of history and our good or bad choices, there is the impartial fact of human grief.

Vaikus is one of the Estonian words for silence, though in this poem it pretends to be a place name. In Estonian culture, silence has some deeply positive meanings as well as the negative ones we might expect.

And I should mention that every Estonian family's summerhouse or smallholding has a beehive. Should you call, you will certainly be offered honey."

A Monument in Vaikus

is a hillside

cleft. dark wave

that rolls towards you

from the land (the Baltic

at your back is calmer), a wave

beneath which the craft you are is wrack.

is flotsam. is consumed.

or holds its course straight through

the scarp, the whelm, the null

of it. makes for the sky

ahead. stays true.


a straight cut through time,

as tenderly, punctiliously

incisive as an archaeologist's trench


this fault line in marble is both

the most eloquent speaking and scarcely

a speaking at all:

the bare names,

twenty thousand, face each other

in plain equal font,

no voice raised louder than another:

mighty reticence

so any word you speak among them feels too much


one impulse is to shout

and there's some power in that:

the back-and-forth echoes

endlessly according with each other,

till they too are a slab of polished black,

impervious to light, and no escape


as dark as a mine

between the strata, prised painfully apart,

the names:

the most particular,

the rarest, most commonplace ore


there is nothing unique, they say, about us,

this sabre cut through the unsaying.

there are countless others.

these deaths are merely our own


this hill could slide closed,

the book of un-reading ever, mute

to itself, a conference of fossils

in un-split, unarticulated rock


some monuments are martial music

made of stone.

are march-pasts,

slowed, true, to a standstill

but still wearing their boots –

I can't conceive of music

it would be more right to sound here

than to stand

with not a note

played but the instruments held ready


and that is what I meant

to say. to write some bars

of that un-music

but in words


a straitening. a hillside split

by a shift in the continent's edge.

the way between,

a slow climb through the hillside

towards, though it is narrowed

to barely a hope,

a bare hope. light. the sky.

emerging there you find this state of inside

has an outside after all. a wall

of polished quietness. four lines of a poem.

and ten thousand silver, individual bees.


the murmur of a beehive is a synonym in sound

for silence.

not the kind that seals you in

but that which sets you free

to scribe your patterns on the air


the bees are meant for homing, for

homecoming, but the light that catches them,

at distance, could be sparks

from a collapsing roof-tree or

an old man's bonfire in the night


no, of course, nothing, name, no word, no stone

nor the most sincere treading out of paces,

can stand for the absences, take them away

from us, take them into the pores of the stone.

and yet, speak carefully. aim

for the word, the next one, not

right, ever. just a shade less wrong

Philip Gross has published twenty poetry collections, including four for children, and won many of the major awards in British poetry, from the National Poetry Competition to the T.S. Eliot Prize. His latest book, Between The Islands, was published by Bloodaxe in 2020. You can find more of his collections here.

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