Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: The Displaced Persons Camp By Philip Gross

The Displaced Persons Camp

Lean vigilant faces, sleepless eyes
look up. They sit like children grown
unnaturally, cramped into desks in rows,
and submit to the language of strangers, a stern
new ordering of tenses: is, was,

will be. ‘Repeat now, after me.’ Each voice
lifts towards clarity, and breaks: waves
on a north shore, a dull bafflement of loss.
‘The subtler points - should, might have been -
will come in time.’ The class dismissed,

they are free to sit, or pace the bare
perimeter. Willowherb flares from the dust.
It is neither peace nor war. Beyond the wire
in wide fields, two boys and a dog
race after their own cries. And stop. And stare.

Image by pakkalajuha from Pixabay
Image by pakkalajuha from Pixabay
Philip Gross’ desperately moving poem has never been more relevant. As earthquakes rock Turkey and Syria, huge numbers of people are now displaced, obliged to find sanctuary on stateless borders, in lands already tested to destruction by war and internecine violence. Gathering on figurative fault-lines, pushed and shoved about by extremity of circumstance and plagued by an accident of birth, it seems likely that many will be condemned to a kind of exile in a time without limits.

And exile – a punishment that was viewed as worse than death by the Ancient Greeks – is visited upon the appearance of its victims in Gross’ perceptive poem. Occupying another kind of border, between insomnia and wakefulness, between shock and fatigue, the numbed figures are shadows in an alien tableau, tired beyond sleep, weakened into docility and obedience. The ‘dull bafflement of loss’ is infused with a studied vagueness that cannot but approximate to the experience it describes.

The interchange of metrical lengths actuates the poem, conferring, along with some gently persuasive half-rhyming, a listless energy on the studied pace of the narrator’s observation. The poem’s form yields latitude for contemplation. Not least as the nameless refugees are made to re-learn language, to adopt the mantle of the homeless, and in doing so, to expunge their own identities and former existences from memory. A ‘new ordering of tenses’ wipes the slate of nationhood clean as it blurs the boundary between the past, the present and a circumscribed future.

Gross’ final quintet reinforces that process of circumscription: venturing no further than a barbed-wire perimeter, the entrapped ‘inmates’ may only envision the memory called ‘home’ beyond the horizon. The presence of two larking boys, outside looking in, makes a terrible irony of the notion of freedom. The concluding lines of this fine poem, whose words slow to a reflective standstill, are heartbreaking:

‘in wide fields, two boys and a dog
race after their own cries. And stop. And stare’.

'The Displaced Persons Camp' is taken from Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) and is reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

The poem originally appeared in Philip Gross' Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (Bloodaxe Books, 2001)