JANUARY 19, 2019
“WHAT’S THE WORD / for the kind of loneliness that can feel like swimming / unassisted in a foreign language, for the very first time?”
This unanswerable question ends a poem in the middle of Carl Phillips’s new collection, Wild Is the Wind. Or perhaps the answer is: There is no one word. And perhaps there was no such feeling, pinpointed just there — this precise kind of loneliness — until the moment Phillips identified it and wrote it down. But there is familiarity in the experience: a connection gets made across the abyss from writer to language to reader. One is alone, in foreign language, but afloat — swimming. It’s lonely to translate one’s wordless thoughts into a medium that can be communicated. It’s also a way of being with others.
Carl Phillips has forged an entire poetry career in describing the nuance of emotional states, finding and naming that wilderness of layered feelings that inscribe the truest experiences. The complexity of being adrift and alone, but also realizing one’s capability in such a state — swimming unassisted — is sad and exhilarating, confusing and deeply edifying. And so are the ways Phillips approaches all of his territories: history and myth, Virgil and Homer, the garden and its bees, the sea, the forest, the prairie, the lover undressing, the bed.
In “Not the Waves as They Make Their Way Forward,” Phillips begins by considering the legacy of Marcus Aurelius, and then considering his considering:
Like Virgil, Marcus Aurelius died believing that his triumphs,
when pitched against his failures, had come to very little.
I don’t know.
Phillips refuses to make, or believe, such a hard judgment, and so he takes that step back — “I don’t know” — and then wends his way through the ambiguities of what is valuable about a life, how to assess our own success, how we often get it wrong, and not even in the ways that we think. He is not attempting to be contrary or to correct the record, but to be accurate to the betweenness and slipperiness of his own understanding.
It is difficult to speak with certainties and opinions, as one wants to do in a book review, about the work of Carl Phillips. His ongoing resistance to these very qualities seems to form the basis of his poetics. I am drawn to Phillips’s work for its precision about subtlety and nuance, and persistent questioning of the mind’s declarations. This is the opposite of vagueness, but it is similarly hard to pin down.
In “From a Bonfire,” a poem in the middle of the collection, Phillips begins with this kind of dismantling of firm opinions:
There’s plenty I miss, still, that I wouldn’t want back —
which I’m beginning to think might be all regret’s ever had
to mean, and there’s maybe no shame, then, in having
known some and, all these years, I’ve pretty much
been wrong. Not that being wrong means wasting time,
exactly. What hasn’t been useful?
The contortions of these sentences mirror the shaping and turning over of the idea in the speaker’s mind. The ideas are in motion from the outset, as if we are listening in mid-thought — “still,” “which I’m beginning to think.” They tumble through the mind and develop as they go. And they gain uncertainty as they go, too: “maybe,” “pretty much,” “not […] exactly.” From here, the poem launches into a consideration of the bonfire, that familiar ritual marking autumn, marking the passage of time in childhood, and finally marking, now, the speaker’s internal change. But the change isn’t denoted by the bonfire — the image isn’t saddled with this kind of false metaphorical power (and stasis) to create and transmit meaning to an audience. Rather, the speaker’s realization that he thinks of it differently now is the notable quality — the fact of remembering how he experienced it as a child versus how he thinks back on it is what allows him to mark a passage of time and a change in himself.
To mark evolution seems a worthy task for poems, and to enact it even better. Carl Phillips is a poet well suited to such a task. He is linguistically and imagistically restless, like that fire, playing on patterns in language, riffing off old songs, flitting from the ancient tales (Homer in particular offers a point of reference for our world) to the private contemporary moment. These are his reference points because they are the subjects he has engaged — he reads and translates ancient Greek and Latin, and he lives, of course, in 2018 America, in St. Louis and Massachusetts, shuffling from bedroom to kitchen, traversing classrooms and sidewalks, wandering fields and beaches.
Phillips’s poems also track the shifts of light and objects moving across his landscapes, physical, literary, and remembered. His subjects are vast, but he comes back to the elemental — in particular light and water — again and again, the body and its sensual capacity, beauty, history and myth, and the mind’s straining toward meaning. In these poems, every comma and line break twists the poem’s direction just a few degrees, halting and turning us, shifting the light, so that questions illuminate and grow from what first seemed to be declaration.
Even in his engagement with history, which courses through so much of this book, Phillips sees a living story. In the early poem, “Swimming,” his speaker considers how historical damage shapes our landscapes and lives:
But what hasn’t been damaged? History
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long their bowed shapes seem a kind of star —
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows what star to lean on. Do
people, anymore, even say helmsman? Everything
in waves, or at least wave-like …
History means tornadoes and human toil shaping our landscape, along with the stories of uncounted and uncountable ancestors. Phillips imagines how we move through these places now as “helmsmen” (a romantically historical word in itself) steering our little boats. There’s a comfort in knowing where we are. We can navigate by these artifacts of damage — bowed trees, eroded coastline. In so doing, we also have to see that we are not the end of the story, only small crafts moving through these waves, which continue coming at us and will continue beyond us. These moves in Phillips’s book broaden the lens, reminding us of our scale in time and space, and the immensity of our surroundings.
The personal, in such a generous historical and spatial context, does not end up feeling diminished, but multitudinous, and beautiful in all its odd particularities. “I like a wreckage I can manage myself,” Phillips writes in “If You Will, I Will.” This feels like a moment of ars poetica, which he then expands upon: “winnowing cleanly the lost from the still / salvageable, not erasing disorder exactly, but returning / order to a fair footing, at least, beside a wilderness I wouldn’t / live without.”
Phillips is a collector and chronicler, but not of narrative; he seeks instead to chart the movements of a mind toward greater understanding. “There’s a light that can make / finding a thing look more than faintly / like falling across it,” he says. One thing looks more than faintly like another. One movement slips toward another kind of movement. Phillips holds perception and sensibility in such high regard that he requires himself to be as accurate as possible in describing them. At the same time, he distrusts them as final or fixed; therefore all descriptions are rooted in qualifiers and recognitions of uncertainty.
Put another way, to read Carl Phillips is to have one’s vision sharpened, one’s ear engaged, in the search for pattern and perception and meaning. Such close observation has both effect and countereffect simultaneously: one looks, and one realizes the object has changed under one’s gaze. Or, perhaps, one realizes that the self is a blindfold: one looks, but begins to understand one cannot see. In the poem most directly addressing the writing life, “Craft and Vision,” Phillips says, “Always, if it’s wanted badly enough, there’s / somewhere a findable veil just waiting to be lifted or pulled / slowly aside, classic revelation, a word that itself at its / root has a veil within it.” Later he adds, “Witness, then blindness — that’s a way / of putting it.” Revelation both lifts and restores the veil.
Carl Phillips’s poetry makes the case that poetry’s task is not to be a mirror for what is, authoritative only in its concreteness, but a way of refracting the light. Phillips repeatedly turns the glass so that it reveals objects askew, in motion, and at the edges of the visible realm. In his poems, there is no gaze that does not become a search, and no search that does not reveal the workings of the mind.
The poems in Wild Is the Wind are the result of Phillips’s long, restless reckoning with meaning, his submission to the shifting mind and field of vision. They are the result, but certainly not the conclusion.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two books of poetry, Hundred-Year Wave (2016) and Copperhead (2011), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. She has been awarded Wallace Stegner and NEA Fellowships, and her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and elsewhere. She co-directs the community writing center Left Margin LIT in Berkeley, California.