British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: Interview

Simon Denison talks to Philip Gross

Reclaiming poetry's share of the past

It is, perhaps, surprising that so few poets have written about our feelings for the past.

That intense but ambivalent attraction we can have, for instance, to prehistoric monuments, and to the other relics of vanished societies, may be what draws many to archaeology; but archaeology - the telling of stories about the past - can only do so much to illuminate our complex emotions or pin them down. The rest is, or could be, the province of poetry.

Philip Gross is one of the few poets to tackle these dark areas, and his latest collection, A Cast of Stones, is a set of meditations on Stonehenge and Avebury. In these acute, disturbing and often exhilarating poems he nails truths - the sheer indecipherability of the stones, for example, and the limitations of guidebook knowledge - that no archaeologist would dare to state. He also captures what may be the very essence of the appeal of the past - our simultaneous connection to it, and complete separation from it - that necessarily sounds leaden or lame when expressed in prose.

We meet at Avebury; and the first shock - I thought this would be an entirely different sort of interview - is that he tells me as a child he actually wanted to be an archaeologist. This established, Faber-published poet, novelist and playwright, winner in 1982 of the annual National Poetry Competition, as a child made obsessive, exact diagrams of the stone circles on Dartmoor, near where he was born in 1952; and repeatedly dragged his parents around the South West looking for monuments to explore (a story I have heard from more than one archaeologist interviewed for this page).

There was a kind of crabbed swottishness that lasted for a while. An `isolated, only child', he was `shy, buttoned up, and desperately timid' from then into early adulthood, and after university (where he read English) he took jobs as a librarian and an editor of a correspondence course for foreign students in subjects such as law and accountancy - `subjects I know absolutely nothing about,' he says with a laugh. It was witnessing the birth of his first child, in his late 20s, that changed his life and gave him the confidence to express himself in writing. `It was simply an event of a different order from everything that had gone before.'

There are still traces of that formerly shy man, but Philip Gross now comes across with gentle and unreserved friendliness. He is reflective and playful, and as he talks, his shoulders move, and his long white hands flutter about, or clasp, or beat the table with index fingers. There is no sense - as with some vainer people - that he is presenting a certain face for the interview.

His poetic observations on archaeologists, whom he calls `the resurrection men', are often wry; but his relationship to archaeology is companionable. Although he is not satisfied (who is?) by archaeological `facts', his imagination is grounded in fact. He has no time for disprovable craziness, and says that if archaeology were ever to end, he would wish to revive it.

Archaeology, he says, provides a test-bench for our imagination and fantasy - as fine a description of the subject's role as any I have come across.

`A Cast of Stones', with poetry by Philip Gross and paintings by John Eaves and FJ Kennedy, was published this summer by Digging Deeper, ISBN 0-9514076-4-3, at UKP11.99.

from A Game of Henge

Those stony backs. A scrum around a whisper:
Hush. Hiss. Who?
Why won't they let you in? No, it's a
secret secret
won't tell YOU . . .

A playground wide as Wessex. Wire barbs
the wind whines through.
You'd wait a hundred years and couldn't ask.
It's secret secret
won't tell YOU.

Don't dare. You dare yourself to dare
and then you do.
They turn and . . . What's the game? You are.
And it's Sticks And Stones
and you're on your own
and it's Piggy in the Middle
and the piggy is YOU.

Rites from A Day at the Earth House

In the church of St James, at his post
on the font a priest with no face holds two smooth-

coiled snakes at bay. The two stone avenues
coil up over the hill to the henge. Out of sight

the organ tunes up for a wedding and, white
ribbons shivering, a sit-up-and-beg

white Morris takes a road marked red
on the map, that cuts the henge. A sideways

glance: the bride in the back looks, let's say
carsick, as they slow to thread between

great stones. The dancers on the green
wag their hankies like aunts on the end

of the platform of centuries: Morris men
in white laundered blouses slashed -

cross their hearts - with these sashes
of blood red, like barber's poles.

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