‘Appearances’ by Philip Gross


“What’s the boy saying?” Gaunt hand wavering
at me, nails like polished horn (Don’t stare,
your uncle’s old and not well), signet ring
a gleam on the wasted flesh (And call him Sir),
the long-toothed grin, its awful vacancy …

then “Damn you, woman” – brittle, shrill –
“Where are you?” She moved, his iron-grey
shadow, a tight-lipped watchfulness, to still
him with a touch. She swung his chair away
to face the sun, then summoned me. Outside

she softened, “Look, peaches. From grandmother’s
time. Or her grandmother’s.” She smiled,
not at me, “We belong, you see: maids, gardeners,
caretakers, keepers … He’s like a child,
wilful, fearful, calling in the dark. And who

looks to appearances, but me? No, tell
your mother: there’s nothing here for you.”
Low hobbled trees, branches splayed parallel
to take the sun; the fruit . . . “He has the few
that ripen. Come.” He was famous in the family,

a stranger, scandalously rich, master of everything
beyond our grasp. She eased the one peach patiently
between fingers that grip, grip as if to wring
from the pale downed flesh some common property,
something given, shared, a ghost of tenderness.
Philip Gross has published fifteen collections since his first in 1983 and won the T S Eliot Prize for The Water Table (2009). This poem is from that first book; he writes ‘ I still value this poem, re-reading it now, and am not sure why I left it out of my Selected back in 2001. Maybe it has a new resonance for me in the light of my latest, Deep Field, which deals with my father’s loss of his language and other faculties in old age.’

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