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Book The Water Table: Great Poems Collection

Great poetry is like walking on water. Water is a main theme in poets. The Water Table enters a somewhat crowded waterway, and one might be forgiven for doubting that there is much more that can be said.

Yet Gross‘s engagement with the Severn has won the TS Eliot prize, and in it he has done something new. No specialist knowledge of (or interest in) the Severn is required: the river is an ­inspiration and spiritual inhabitant of these poems, nothing more or less. ­Unusually, Gross is not that interested in the metaphorical possibilities of ­water: this is not a book about grief or loss, nor is his river a method of chronicling social change. Gross, instead, is absorbed in what water actually is, its substance, its realness. While water in literature is often a metaphor for what cannot be expressed, in life it has a miraculous physicality all its own and Gross inhabits this completely. It makes for a remarkably solid book ­despite its fluid foundations. In “Pour”, the falling water is “this slick and fluted glitter, / slightly / arcing, rebraiding itself as it falls, // as for tangible / seconds it’s a thin/ taut string of surface tension // that my hand feels, on the handle, / as a pulse, a pull, / a thing // in space, that lives in this world”.

The poems of Water Table exuberantly mix the ­scientific with the colloquial: “we’ve punched clean into heaven: snow- // dazzle plains of stratocumulus around us, the paleo-arctic / of the edge of space . . . It’s as clear as déjà vu”. (“Ice Man Dreaming”). Sometimes the silly word is just right too: alongside the technical extravaganza, we have “iffy”, even “hippo-fart”. Every poem is stuffed to the line-ends with tough, spot-on imagery that makes no concession to the insubstantiality of its subject. Water has “thoughts” that “curl through it, salt or fresh, or hang // between states” (“Betweenland I”); silt in water bears “an expression / that leaves home in search of a face of its own” (“Betweenland II”). Gross’s audacious vocabulary, and absolute precision, bowl the reader happily through 64 pages of concentrated reflection on the nature of reality. From its shape-shifting form to its cauldron of language and its multitudinous approaches to the same subject, The Water Table is an attempt to embody its own idea of reality: an “intricate and in- / conceivable, imperfect / whole” (“Globe”).

This embracing of paradox is the book’s crowning achievement. How substantial are we when we are “lattices of mostly water, flowing side by side” (“Designs for the Water Garden”)? Even portents of climate disaster come to us as they come in life: real, odd, unbelievable all at once. In “Elderly Iceberg off the Esplanade”, an iceberg drifts by almost in reach: “It wasn’t the last, / just a message from last-ness, a crumpled / brown parcel from an unsuspected / awful aunt who might // just turn up any day to stay. Naturally / it was impossible; such things have to be / believed – quia impossibile est. / That species of true.”

While this is a sharply intelligent book, concerned primarily with an idea, it also offers comfort. For Gross, water is a portal, not into mystery, but into what we have always known. In several ­poems he purposefully corrects himself: we see not a “reflection” but a “recollection”. In the very heart of paradox we are somewhere familiar. Far from being a philosophical treatise, it is more like a beautiful handbook to the unknown. Like one of the nature books we might have loved as a child, it inspires the reader to think they too might be able to cast a fresh eye over reality.

“Designs for the Water Garden” brings these ideas together. Set out like a list of features for a garden, each stanza is a description of water. We have a “rain-gazebo”, a “mist-maze”, seven distinct varieties of water in all that imply an infinite variety. Here, our poor old image, water, so often dried up by metaphorical overuse, ­reveals itself as if for the first time. The first stanza brings us “glass stepping stones / flat-topped, level with the ­water, / so on mornings after, when a low / mist frosts the lake, the host walks / out towards the island where black / coffee waits; he calls the guests, o / ye of little faith, to join him.”

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