Philip Gross – Nerve

Gross profile Dec 2020

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Volume Two, December 2020.

Philip Gross lives in South Wales and has published some twenty collections of poetry, most recently Between The Islands (Bloodaxe, 2020). The Water Table won the British T.S.Eliot Prize 2009, and Love Songs of Carbon the Roland Mathias Award (Wales Book of The Year) 2016. He is a keen collaborator, e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (Seren, 2015), with Australian poet-artist Jenny Pollak on Shadowplay (Flarestack, 2018) and with scientists from the National Museum of Wales on a science-based poetry collection for young people, Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry Books, 2018). A Part of the Main – a conversation in poems between Philip Gross and Lesley Saunders on themes of migration, exile, loss of love or home or language – appeared from Mulfran in 2019. Forthcoming projects include Troeon/Turnings, a book of ‘translaboration’ – mutual translations/responses between him and Welsh language poet Cyril Jones.

Nerve Tree

We hang by a thread.

On the CT scan
a jaw appears, as if by archaeology

but monochrome:
yours. There’s no pretence that this is ordinary seeing

– more like touch,
like handling the jawbone, cut down into,

slice by slice,
sinking into its texture, descending through

stiff-gritty cloud to a rumour of a runway dark below.


That knothole in the bone
is where the nerve emerges –

the tendril from which, in that particular,
you hang, fruit of the tree
of feeling
and of pain.  Without the pain, now,

you… abut the world; here’s a lump
of yourself, in the way of yourself.

How will you inhabit this landscape again,
chalk plain
crawled over
by remotely sensing instruments

as distant from whatever
‘you’ might be as, say, a landing on the moon?


You know the anaesthetic’s starting when half your mouth is full of teeth.
You want to spit them out, but they’re your own.


When he drills…
what else can you do
but witness
something you can’t call ‘him’ or ‘me’

in the space of your bone-box?
Rather, see a many-branching canopy,

bole, branches, twigs and smaller,
nerve ends
spreading out, suspended
in the body, as in sky

and maybe swaying, maybe
with bird shrills, bird thrills, twinges

to and fro.
There must be roots – the word
insists there are – but
whether they’re deep in the earth

or inside you, deeper
than an arm can reach, you can’t say.


The anaesthetic’s working. It has stripped away the pain
like stripping the flesh from the bones.

What remains is the pressure, the weight, the too-insistent not-a-pain
of his work on the skeleton. That being what tooth is.  Oh,
the tooth bone’s connected to the
jaw bone, the jaw bone’s connected to the
skull bone, the skull bone’s connected to the 
neck bone…
Oh, skeleton, ascetic brother,
would you miss our tingling wincing surfaces?
The way those filaments branch into the depths of us?

Would you miss referred pain: that symposium of hurts?
The old dawn chorus, like bad birdsong in the blood?


Verfremdungseffekt: standing outside – while being in
the experience too – not out of oneself (one’s mind, one’s body)

but alongside, in parallel space.  Yes, the parallel universe:
that which is equally and coexistently the case

of which which we cannot speak, however,
due to our mouth being full of stainless steel machinery.


Bearing in, to a point, the dentist’s attention,
focused down to, now, a single nerve’s width…

while round it you’re a vast and cluttered and yet empty landscape
like a roadside town, all truckstop and chickens, in the deep Midwest.


Like having builders in the house:

you try to live around them, the pretence of being undisturbed,
when you’re cowering.

Yes, like that. Like that except inside your head


To flinch is only natural – back from the mosquito-whining point.
But when the touch is inside you? Then where do you go?

‘Out of body’, they say, at the point of death or impact
but now, in the recumbent chair, beneath the spotlight,
your whole body asking to leave…?

And this is where
we live.  Between the shrill transaction at the tendril tip,
the fine hairs of the nerve tree and the ripe nut of the brain

see the woods of us, the woods between us, swaying in the wind
the canopy rippling now, alive with bird cries

or, now, bare for winter, when the inner shapes of trees
show through. The tremor in the tips still can’t stop singing
This is me this is me, this is you.

© Philip Gross