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Poem of the Week: ‘Petit Mal’ by Philip Gross
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Philip Gross
Philip Gross’ moving lines chart the loss of a loved one’s mind to the sudden occlusion of an absence seizure. There is ambiguity in the poet’s lightness of touch, a suggestion, without qualifying indication, that the frightening drift into mental disappearance might be irrevocable.

Petit Mal
Just a flutter
  behind your eyes,
    a swirl of snow

that melts at my touch
  and you wonder why I ask
    Where did you go?

What’s happening?
  ‘Nothing’, you say.
    It’s nothing, true:

a tiny death?
  a leaving home?
    Who knows? Not you.

Not the feverish script
  writ by the moving
    finger of the EEG.

Not the maze-mandalas,
  shadow-maps,
    that are all I see

in the brain scan
  negatives. No trace
    of the gusts of flight

or free fall
  I’ve felt brush
    past me to light

wing-quivering
  on your skin, as if
    to mark you out. So

slight. So hard
  to hold you. Harder still
    to let you go.


The ‘petit mal’ might last only for a few seconds, but its occurrence is a division bell, a call to separation whose only emollient is the poet’s ability to express his anxiety in the most tender of language.

And he does so in metaphors which melt the heart along with the snowbound cerebral landscape whose outward symptom is a fluttering of the eyes. Unaware of the absence, the re-emergent loved figure’s response to the touchingly rhetorical question - ‘Where did you go? / What’s happening?’ – is ‘Nothing’.

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But the simple denial is resoundingly precise; the mind’s temporary dislocation cannot be properly understood. Less still in the tomographical jargon of the scan, its brain stem ‘shadow-maps’ and ‘maze-mandalas’ serving as impenetrable obstacles to cognition, and through which neurologists are uncertain guides.

The narrator is laid bare at such moments of loss. Gross’ final verses expose a raw nerve as he describes the physiological manifestations of a receding mind in increasingly delicate metaphors of ‘flight’ and freefall’, as though the ‘petit mal’ had chosen the protagonist for a journey towards nothing.

The sense of separation at such moments is unbearable. The ‘wind-quivering’ tremors act to firm the narrator’s grip of the loved one, as though the loss might be permanent, the pain infinite.

‘Petit Mal’ is taken from The Son of the Duke of Nowhere and is published by Faber & Faber

Poem of the Week: ‘Petit Mal’ by Philip Gross, 10th April 2019, 19:51 PM