Deep Field by Philip Gross – How Deep is Your Love?

Stevie Howell review of Deep Field

Reviewed for Ploughshares
Published March 15, 2012

Deep Field, by T. S. Eliot Prize-winner Philip Gross, charts the slow loss of the author’s father, John, to aphasia, an irreversible decline in the brain’s language faculties. Gross’s father, who once knew five languages, has lost his ability to complete even an English sentence and as both a son and a writer, Gross mourns the loss of easy communication.

He recounts the challenge of figuring out what his father means—in one instance, practically reduced to a one-man game of charades—and asks us, “Who looking in/the window now could say/which one of us was the one deprived of speech?” In alluding to the lack of clarity he encounters, many lines in this book are rhetorical questions, such as: “Where can you go back to once you’ve lived in language?” This is the central question in the work.

Yet Gross also seems to be confronting the limits of his art—challenging poetry, with its impressionistic forms and tyranny of economy, to make linkages with his fathers’ deteriorating vocabulary and expression. The poems in this collection are all silence and patience, gaps and rambling. a hybrid of both the author’s and father’s voices. The text is full of false starts, prompts and extrapolations; fragments fall onto the page in unexpected meter, like the elder’s broken cadence. It’s almost as if Gross believes that it’s not a spouse, a doctor, a scientist, or a son who can reach someone with aphasia. It’s a poet.

The bigger problem, of course, is that Gross’s father has lost not only his language, but a swath of his identity, and Gross grapples as much with his ingrained expectations of his father as he does with finding new ways of communicating. Eventually, this leads to an exploration of how bonds are sustained when someone we have long known experiences a break in personality. Though it’s a well documented challenge with diseases like Alzheimer’s, Gross astutely observes that is the same isn’t true for the parents of growing children, who in fact take specific delight in the surprise of new and surprising iterations. Remarking on how his father has “un-aged into a chatterbox child,” Gross draws a parallel with his own infant son, Jacob: “Two weeks old, he’s all vowel, open-/ended, unconstructed/shameless bowel of wanting /this, thwarted by that.”

It was once written that, “Adult love shouldn’t be about remembering what it was like to be loved as a child, but imagining what it took for a parent to love us.” That notion is what drives this sensitive exploration of Gross’s father in Deep Field: how adult love occurs not unconditionally, but continues to be renewed in spite of unforeseeable conditions.

Margaret Christakos: Children of the revolution

Reviewed for Arc Poetry Journal
Published online and in print March 2012

Welling, Margaret Christakos’s eighth volume of poetry, weaves across the borderlines between past and present and explores the significance of place. The “welling” of the title refers to Wellington Heights in Sudbury, where Christakos grew up. But it also alludes to welling up—to a sense of things brimming to their edge, about to tip over or shift—whether it’s a change in oneself, how one relates to the environment, or how people negotiate one other. This is a collection of poems that freeze-frames moments at the edge of transformation.

The poems explore family, technology, spirituality (or lack thereof)—and it is this thematic dynamism that makes it possible, and necessary, for Christakos’s poems to take a range of fluid and florid shapes. The gaping spaces between passages create motion and allow for great leaps in both form and idea.

Some of the most striking poems revolve around her relationship with her children. The poem “Relative” highlights a conflict that ensues between the speaker and her son after they see a panhandling teenage punk. The mother embodies an all-knowing mixture of concern and pity for the homeless boy:

           
The mysterious boy without
parents has a gash in his purple
face…
            [D]oes his blood backward-somersault
            toward a green lake & sand pail
            & a set of soft arms to catch him?

 

The son, having benefitted from being loved and cared for, takes a contrarian position, and without gratitude, hisses: “I get why he’s out there. Think of the freedom, man.”

Later, in the fourth section of the book, Christakos opens with a blunt statement: “my child is a child of the revolution / destined to fail,” which explores what it means to grow up in a highly technological, largely atheistic, almost apathetic world: “epiphanies were pro-choice to my generation—win some, lose some, buy a Lotto ticket.” When the speaker’s daughter asks when time began, we are both touched by the innocence of the question and dismayed by the weight of it along with the speaker: there are points and peaks for every parent when we won’t, or can’t, take a child by the hand and walk them through everything. This poem, by turns caustic and touching, examines what kind of world we are bringing our children into, and admits to a parent’s own helplessness.

The final, long poem—“Wellington”—is about Christakos’s own youth, and so we end at the origin and source, at the beginning of the cycle of welling up. Building beautifully on the metaphor of her up- and downhill walk home to the “heights,” she extrapolates the environment that has shaped the contours of her character. Christakos attributes her tenacity to the daily climb: “maybe it’s why I love the unloveable ones: / more work. Work is a climb of the highest order.” Christakos equates love with work, and asserts that the banal repetition of work can become a ritual—something transcendent. This hard work of true love, and the resulting transcendence, is the “welling” that is constantly cycling throughout life. Without a trace of sentimentality, Christakos looks backward, and forward, and shows us what needs to be done, and how to navigate the terrain.