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:
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 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.
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
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.