Dark Sky Park
Philip Gross illustrated by Jesse Hodgson
To say this book is extraordinary is no exaggeration.
Crafted with consummate skill every one of the poems is a gem, not least those that make up the four Tardigrade Sagas. There are, so Philip Gross tells us in a note, over 1000 tardigrade species; they’ve been on earth for 500 million years and are known also as water bears or moss piglets.
Tardigrade in its Element begins thus: ‘This is the kingdom of the Water Bear. / To enter here, you have to shrink / and slow down, down. / A day is one tick of the clock, one blink // of the sun’s eye.’
In Tardigrade in the Cambrian Era we learn: ‘I was there from the off – / the sound of life revving up all over. / This was, oh, a cool half billion years ago.’ Amazing, tiny eight-legged creatures, who can but marvel at such small wonders less than ½ mm. long? Here’s Tardigrade in Focus: ‘OK, so you imagine it: something / a thousand times your size – // a medium village, maybe, or a cloud / with an enquiring mind – // stops. Bends down very close … / Gets out its magnifying glass // and looks at you.’
In complete contrast very recent happenings are powerfully evoked in Aleppo Cat. Herein Gross describes a cat’s wanderings in the ruined city: ‘ First, months / of flash, thud, shudder. // then the wailing … // Months , // that’s half a young cat’s life’ … ‘Where the bread smells came from … // Gone. //And where the fish man // tossed the bones. // Gone. // Where the children chased her // with fierce cuddles, too young // to know their strength. // Gone.’
I have Syrian friends who came from that city a couple of years back with their two young children; this one made me shudder.
There’s humour too however, as in Extreme Aunt who ‘set off to school // with her four huskies, mush, mush! // to outrun the polar bears’; remembered as being ‘poised // on the diving board, the top, //with the wind in her hair. // She had to go further, further and it seems, // too far.’ Now she’s vanished and presently there’s a submarine searching for her.
There’s an Extreme Uncle and Extreme Dining too, if you’re fond of things in the extreme: the latter, a French establishment boasts ‘Pick our Own. // The whole garden’s underwater, a mangrove swamp. // You pay your money, you get your canoe, // (in the shadows, dark ripples and a sluggish // splash … ) your Swiss Army knife and harpoon.’ … Seemingly ‘It’s true // what the menu says: Our food’s so fresh // it bites. Eat it before it eats you’.
I think I’ll give this place a miss; it definitely doesn’t sit well with my vegetarian sensibilities.
Instead I’ll head over to The Extreme Music Festival and perhaps listen to The Storm Harp: ‘Tune up the mountain to the pitch // of music. Set each blade quivering. // Turn up the wind // until the hillside shudders like an animal // shrugging its pelt to scratch an itch.’ // Hear its sigh. Bring on the bad maraccas / of the slipping scree. The landslide starts.’
So vivid, as is, Moon Music: ‘She longed for night. // Now she sits with heavy // curtains open just a chink – a slant, a glint, a cool spark // in the darkened room, // hears how light pings // a prism off the mirror’s edge, // her glass of water tinkling // at its wink.’ Awesome.
Gross invites children in a footnote, to imagine their own kinds of extreme music noting, “The fantastical answers may turn out to say a lot about a real place, or person”.
This is a book to make its readers wonder, imagine, look, look and look again, listen and then wonder more. Gross’s poetic voice is enormously enriching, sometimes challenging, but always accessible.
Illustrator Jesse Hodgson has done a fine job illuminating many of the poems; her inky drawings are on occasion funny, beautiful, arresting or even downright scary,
If you want children to be tuned in to the magic and music of language, and who doesn’t, then this treasure trove is your book.