His poems are cerebral but also sensuous. They are arguments with the self and the world — questions and reversals, attempts at definition and refinement — but they also feel skeptical of their own observations and conclusions. If their figurations are provisional and contingent, they are no less seductive:
Maybe there’s no need for us to go anywhere more far
than here, said the dogwood leaves, mistaking speech
for song, to the catalpa leaves, imitating silence.
This is the energetic and surprising opening of his poem, “Little Shields, in Starlight.” “Maybe,” the first word, already a condition, a mistake, an imitation, ushers in the strangeness of what follows: the attribution of feeling to the leaves, the curiosity of “more far,” the trees, which have dog- and cat- in their names. In the first three lines, the poet has already invoked elements of lyric utterance — speech, song, silence. Phillips fixes this imagined dialogue of the leaves to an instance of human narrative interest:
It was like
sex, when, push the tenderness to either side of it, it’s
just sex; hardly sex at all … Hardly worth mentioning,
except forgetting seems so much a shame lately, and why
shouldn’t there be records, however small, of our having
felt something without for once having to name it …
The song of the leaves plays out here in casual human speech, vernacular, conversational — and the silence becomes, at first, the silence of dismissal and shame and then the liberation of existing outside what words can express. The desire to be free from naming a feeling, and yet, the restless desire to fix it to language, to reenact it in language: these are central concerns of Carl Phillips’s poetry, and these tensions — unafraid of complexity and contradiction — pull the reader through the new and selected poems in Then the War, a new gathering of work from seven collections from the past 13 years. I couldn’t mistake these poems for any other poet’s work. In a moment obsessed with snappy performances, Phillips’s poems are contemplative, rich, and troubled. They are rarely axiomatic or quotable. Often, their power lies in their unfolding.
The new poems, collected here for the first time under the title Then the War, show the poet deepening and extending the signature features of his artistry: his singular syntax, undulating and modulating over lines and stanzas, his restless sharpening and self-correction, his attention to the complexities of the desiring self. Phillips’s is a poetry of twists and turns, of subtle adjustments of meaning and specificity.
Reading Phillips, we enter the world of betweenness. From “Blue-Winged Warbler”:
They say that deep in the interstices
where dream and waking dream and what, between the two, I’ve
called a life, seem a nest of swords …
Elsewhere, Phillips’s poems seek restlessly to refine perception:
It’s as if the difficulty were less what happened —
the truth, presumably — than how little
what happened resembles the story
of what happened.
In one poem, the point on the compass stops “squarely / between what’s beautiful / and what was awful.” There, thoughts have bodies, sinew, musculature. Like thinking itself, the poems are dynamic and fragile, subject to movement, change, and rupture.
Knowledge, in these poems, is so often evasive, and the speaker often corrects himself, reversing what came before, attempting in line after line, to get closer to something. Something true? Something real? One poem describes “how knowing isn’t / understanding, isn’t mystery either, which isn’t un-knowing, / not exactly, more like deciding to turn abruptly / east after so many years westering…” The poems jostle and contrive to be more precise, all the while undermining the enterprise. After the poet figures a lifting fog as the veil in epic verse, Phillips undercuts his own simile: “I’m not saying I do or don’t / believe that, I’m not even sure that belief can change / any of it, at least in terms of the facts of how, / moment by moment, any life unfurls…” Later in the collection, in a poem recounting a first encounter, the speaker desires to correct the lover, but then corrects his own private impulse to correct:
closure with conclusion is nothing new, I at first
want to say to him, but a
shadow-softness to his face brings out
a softness in me that I don’t show, usually …
These poems are populated with figures that feel — after time — like invocations of archetypes and not images — the field, the sea, the horse, the hawk, the trees. I also have the sense that I’m encountering a world already made, the terrain already well established, the action already underway — each poem in medias res as so the title of the collections suggest.
Carl Phillips interrogates sex, power, history, the way nature reflects and refuses our human desires. As usual, his new poems exploit the tensions between the force of music and the force of the sentence, the force of pleasure and the force of violence. Most striking in the new work is the lyrical prose sequence “Among the Trees” — a chilling sort of psychological memoir/essay about trees, in which the poet wanders among the enchantments of the woods. There is danger everywhere: the specters of lynching, family humiliations, cruising for sex. There are also trees from literature from Tolkien to Jarrell and in Phillips’s own oeuvre, quoted to be engaged with, and, often, as elsewhere, to be corrected. Offering two instances in which he writes about the forest, Phillips accounts for the difference in the poems: “Story, versus information. Lyric, versus didactic. Long, periodic sentences, versus clipped, straightforward ones. Catalpa trees aren’t hawthorns. I’m not the man I was.” It is a rich exploration of reality and imagination, of making art out of memories and making memories out of art. Though the accounts unfold in prose, and without the sensuousness and juxtaposition that Phillips’s lineated poems typically afford, they retain the poet’s tensions. At one point, he explains: “In a sense, the poems themselves are trees, or treelike, in that they become a place where what’s difficult and/or forbidden can have a place both to be hidden and within which to feel free to unfurl or extend itself.”
Readers who love Carl Phillips’s lectures and essays, as I do, such as those published together in Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf, 2004), will be intrigued by this extended prose sequence, and its presence here, among the poems, and will be eager for Phillips’s next prose book, My Trade Is Mystery, out from Yale University Press this spring.
I found some of the very best poems in the collection to be those gathered from Star Map with Action Figures, the chapbook put out by Sibling Rivalry Press. “And If I Fall” opens that chapbook and is among Phillips’s most beautiful lyrics:
There’s this cathedral in my head I keep
making from cricket song and
dying but rogue-in-spirit, still,
bamboo. Not making. I keep
imagining it, as if that were the same
thing as making, and as if making might
bring it back, somehow, the real
cathedral. In anger, as in desire, it was
everything, that cathedral. As if my body
itself cathedral. I conduct my body
with a cathedral’s steadiness, I
try to. I cathedral. In desire. In anger.
Light enters a cathedral the way persuasion fills a body.
Light enters a cathedral, the way persuasion fills a body.
The poem is an ars poetica and ars erotica, imagining and making the cathedral of the mind and the cathedral of the body, a place of worship and penetration, of emotion and persuasion. The memorable final couplet turns on a simile and complicates our notion of persuasion — Is it involuntary? Violating? Are we complicit or unwilling? — by figuring it as light? And the comma in the final line turns metaphor into enactment.
I don’t know why Carl Phillips chose to publish a chapbook, but I wonder if the chapbook, outside the constraints of the typical full-length poetry collection and outside, in some sense, the canon of his work, afforded him space to play out some new experiments. Was the chapbook itself a form of risk-taking for the poet so masterfully driven by risk? These poems, which admittedly I missed upon their publication, are some of the most dazzling gathered here:
The crown looks good on you, the veil
does too — when you lift the veil, the future’s everything you wished for.
Richie Hofmann’s new book of poems, A Hundred Lovers, is out now from Knopf.