thirty-eight: Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker

I was actually given Cat’s Whisker by a good friend on my seventeenth birthday, and I think I read most of it back then, if not all. But when I found it at my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I thought it would be nice to revisit it – in case I missed a couple first time round, and because I remembered liking it.

I remember three poems striking me in particular on that first reading (‘Cat’s Whisker’, ‘Baltic Amber’ and ‘Little Dancer’); this time, they still resonated, but were three precise, delicate pieces among a whole raft of poetry that absorbed me in its invitation to take an outsider’s viewpoint. So many of the pieces in this collection seemed to witness to a sense of being at the edges of things; from the child in the title poem, to the culture relegated to the borderlands of society in ‘Breton Dance’, to the crazy old ‘Stonepecker’. There seemed a particular affinity to stone: there was the sculpture in ‘Moore’, dragged reluctantly into being, and another child (presumably) spending a day at a disused quarry. And more from the realm of the eccentric and the looked down upon – a difficult mother in ‘Everything must go’, the abandoned chapel of a disappeared religious group, and a shack glimpsed from the privileged position ‘From the Fast Train’, which ‘no path leads to or from’. ‘The Ghost Trap’ was intriguing but I wasn’t quite sure where the narrative was going or if I’d really followed it.

And in all this landscape of the slightly odd, off-kilter, was a real joy in the language – so precise and so evocative. I really loved this collection; it’s a shame it’s now out of print. Favourites were ‘Baltic Amber’, ‘Moore’, ‘Questions, Questions’, ‘Two Waters’, ‘From the Fast Train’, ‘Boys Fishing’, ‘A Mercy’ and ‘Clay’. Most of all, the title poem, ‘Cat’s Whisker’:

‘Cat got your tongue?’
Go on, I though, laugh! (They did.) She
understands
. Charmer and snake in one,
she padded in and coiled beside me.

I could talk to her,
with her lithe knowing silences,
no questions asked, only the whurr
of a finely-tuned apparatus

idling. ‘Is it true?’
I whispered. ‘You see ghosts?’ She seemed
to smile. (The again, cats always do.)
But the family’s day-long ‘atmospheres’

pained her: that slow build
and itch of static in grown-up altitudes
above my head. She flexed. Yawned. Bristled.
We were bad music to her. Yes, she knew

what wavelengths lace the air.
But how? The first twitch of her whiskers
was the sign. She’d be stroked anywhere
but there. Cat’s-whisker: the encyclopaedia

showed a crystal set, a family
bent close. Cack-rackle-hiss: a jumbling
rush of atmospherics… Then, haltingly
at first, this small voice, coming through.

Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker (Faber and Faber, 1987)

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