Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Carl Phillips

By Lisa Russ SpaarDecember 19, 2015

Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips
Cortège by Carl Phillips

MOST GOOD POETRY possesses an element of wooing, an erotic and often transgressive, unsettling subtext, and in this respect, as Linda Gregerson writes in “Rhetorical Contract in the Erotic Poem,” while the poem may effect “the contours of solitary meditation or unfiltered mimesis, the recklessness of outburst or the abstraction of music, […] it always also seeks to convince, or coerce, or seduce a reader; it is never disinterested, never pure; it has designs on the one who listens or reads.”

No contemporary poetry quite seduces like the work of the inimitable Carl Phillips, whose intimate lyric poems of pursuit, surrender, patience, ardor, restraint, beauty, loss, and suffering are inseparable from what, for lack of a better word, might be called his “designs,” his “style” — subtle, nuanced, shifting negotiations of syntax, silence, and musing — all of which can leave a reader breathless, envious, grateful.

I have been waiting, therefore, since I began, over two years ago, to write this Los Angeles Review of Books “Second Acts” column — which typically pairs a newly published second book of poems with a second book of poems written 20 or more years ago — for Carl Phillips’s second book, Cortège (which appeared in 1995), to be “old” enough for inclusion in the series. By coincidence, then, I found myself in midsummer 2015 rereading Cortège when my preordered copy of Phillips’s brand-new collection, his 13th, Reconnaissance, arrived in the mail.

As I moved back and forth between Phillips’s two collections — one written in early career by a man in his mid-30s, the other on the cusp of middle age, a poet regarded by many now to be one of America’s most eminent writers — I was fascinated, as I always am, not only by the what of Phillips’s work (desire, grief, power-play, beauty-jones) but also by the how of it. By what means, what ruses, does he create in words the sensation of a sub-consciousness in numinous, ineffable dialogue with itself, while at the same time suggesting tumultuous erotic, natural, bodily, ecstatic, and elegiac forces? For this particular “Second Acts” essay, then, I elected to explore not two second books by different authors, but rather to delve in tandem into two books by one author, one his second volume, and the, well, second written two decades later.

In Phillips’s collection of essays The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014), he proposes that restlessness:

of imagination, but also bodily, by which I have mostly meant sexual, I see that now — is what brings us to that space where art and life not only seem interchangeable, for a moment they are so, space where they penetrate one another, space in which, caught between the two, we can be variously lost, broken, or we can summon that daring that can bring us — loss and brokenness in tow — to unknowing.

What Phillips articulates here about a restive, almost apophatic poetics, in which emptying ourselves of knowing makes room for new gnosis, might also be a way of beginning to describe the “how” (the design, the style) of his own poems, both early and late. Phillipsian “magic” involves a movement, a slippage of “powers,” of agency, and rhetorical mode, whether in the more stately, strophic lyrics in Cortège (a cortège, after all, even a Dionysian one, involves a “solemn or funereal procession”) or the more undulant and more prose-like shapes of the poems in Reconnaissance (“reconnaissance” deriving from the French reconnaître to “recognize,” with military connotations involving surveillance). Both collections use simultaneous flourishes of artifice and a stripping away of any baroque foliage to create a nakedness, a clearing that in Phillips’s works often takes the form of a field or vista, a wake or aftermath — what in The Art of Daring Phillips intimates is an arrival at “unknowing”: not so much “ignorance […] as a kind of removal of all the trappings of presentation — how we present ourselves to the world — and an accompanying exposure of the usually hidden parts, what we hide equally from others and from ourselves.”

Here, for instance, is “The Reach,” from Cortège:

Out here, where any rambling bed — of sea —
moss, pachysandra — serves more times than not
for what before, elsewhere, I used to call
the real thing, whole days can pass and still

no hurry, just the flesh and, everywhere,
the languorous slow drifting toward the next
good thing to feed it meaning mainly food,
but also something more — not joy, exactly,

and not quite sex: think of what, once joy,
then sex, has been stripped down, is left behind:
that’s it, or close. 


                                    It seems I’m still
too new to this; the sea, however close,
is one more untried stranger: everytime I
open my mouth, it fills with salt or what
amounts to salt, it feels just like it, left
sticky and heavy — foreign — on my tongue.

“The Reach” is a long poem by late-Phillips standards (compared to only four of the 34 poems in Reconnaissance, 20 of the 33 poems in Cortège stretch beyond a page) and like many of the earlier poems it is stanzaic and ghosted by regular meter. But despite its somewhat disingenuous disclaimer (poetic and erotic) — “I’m still / too new to this” — the poem evinces stylistic signatures that Phillips will carry with him, with an accrual of power, into his later oeuvre. For instance, the poem begins with one long, highly figurative sentence that is trellised — with self-interruption, tangent, apposition, and interjection — over two and a half quatrains in which the speaker attempts, through metaphor and simile to muse his way toward defining something: what “I used to call / the real thing.” Through a stripping away of the figurative trappings it has just erected, the poem arrives at an answer, or something “close” to one. The next sentence, also long, also built across stanzas, shifts into a mode of “logic” and dialectic (the realm of “rule,” of what’s “true,” and of the economies, the “cost,” involved in artifice), rationality being another way Phillips negotiates his lyric subjects. At just precisely the halfway point of the poem, Phillips contracts his syntax abruptly — “Am / I happy? Mostly” — and the poem reaches its second volta, the first being the ambivalent “answer” at which the first sentence arrives. (Phillips’s poems are subtly multi-orgasmic in their negative epiphanies.)

Phillips then shifts into another of his modes — valedictory, elegiac — with a sentence that echoes Shakespeare’s similarly autumnal sonnet 73 (“That time of year”), reminding us that, as the book’s epigraph from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood attests, “The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” After imagining the goings and returnings, the “passing in and out” of men, potential lovers, maybe, some “who won’t return, ever,” Phillips shifts into yet another apophatic moment, only this time the speaker is abroad, a kind of isolato erotic pilgrim on the via negativa. Only the wind “bothers to sweep” things clear now, the poem having shifted from human musings to a silent imagining of the “voice” the body makes when it sings: pre-literate and primal. Poetry and sex, word and world, meld in the poem’s final stanza; what’s “foreign” on the speaker’s tongue is not a word, though we know exactly what it means.

The late poet Howard Nemerov (who, interestingly, also taught at Washington University, where Phillips now teaches) wrote in a poem called “Strange Metamorphosis of Poets”:

From epigram to epic is the course
For riders of the American wingéd horse.
They change both size and sex over the years,
The voice grows deeper and the beard appears;
Running for greatness they sweat away their salt,
They start out Emily and end up Walt.

This trajectory may be true for some poets, but I don’t think the adage holds for Phillips, whose poems (like those of another great stylist, Charles Wright) have, in general, become more compressed, though no less potent, over time. The horse he’s riding may be older, but it, like its rider, is also wiser, and, if no less capable of wildness, also more open to surrender and to defeat, to give and take in the economies of erotic entanglement and in life itself, with all its brokenness and ruin.

Here is “Harness”:

            As for Risk: I’ve held
on to him. And yes —
I still ride, though he
        moves more slowly now,
with something a bit like
the grace that, over time,
            promiscuity can seem
to bring with it, or — if we’re
lucky enough — defeat,
                      [...] How almost blue
he looks against the sand tonight,
in this light — crippled
                 light; light that’s leaving.

Here we have all of the “designs” of “The Reach” — figuration, the suspended syntax of a sensibility in dialogue with itself, quiet and multiple, nuanced orgasmic-voltas, dialectic, valediction, the via negativa (surrender, emptying), and the articulation of the ineffable — but with a compression that is at the same time patient and even morally aware. The last image embodies, I think, the kind of reconnoitering that defines the book. The speaker’s observations and recognitions are about making gains and suffering losses; and the interdependence of both. That “leaving,” the poem’s last word, is both departure and arrival, victory and surrender, the tree stripped and the tree coming into leaf.

These stylistic moves create a space in which seeming opposites can “penetrate one another, [a] space in which, caught between the two, we can be variously lost, broken, or we can summon that daring that can bring us — loss and brokenness in tow — to unknowing,” to return to Phillips’s own words about “restlessness.” As he suggests in “Shield,” the poems he makes (“If briefly I’ve cast / the world […] as a place you almost / believed in enough to stay — stay / inside of”) are “not so much victoriousness / as victory, even if a restless one — […] / restless […] the way a compass can be, / and still be true.”

Exciting, then, to make simultaneous forays into Cortège and Reconnaissance, and to read the young man/poet in the older, and vice versa. In “The Reach,” from Cortège, Phillips writes (and note the prescient “reconnaissance” implied in “I recognize,” 

                                                Certain nights,
lately, I walk down streets the wind alone

bothers to sweep clean now — and missing that
flesh-to-the-flesh abrading I am told
here means desire, the low to lower pitch-
ing of the voice I’ve come to recognize

as any body when it sings, at last,
at last fed, I try to make a small noise
myself, to sing … and can’t.

In “After Learning That the Spell is Irreversible,” from Reconnaissance, he says, 

                                    Did you know there
are animals that will spend their entire
lives in silence, if they don’t get killed

by something more violent, more alive
somehow? I used to think it was as if fear,
or panic, had brought into voice, finally,
whatever scrap of sound they’d always
held inside them,
                                    but lately I wonder:
Was it there from the start, or does it come
from elsewhere, gift-like,
                                     like a kind of
song to at least go down singing? 

Whatever the source of Carl Phillips’s singing, early and late (and, I hope, yet to come), whatever the season, age, emotional weather, or condition of wealth or bereavement, that singing means, as he writes in “Spring,” “in the way / that moss can mean: all winter; beneath the ice and snow.”


This is part of a regular series on poets’ second books Lisa Russ Spaar has been writing for LARB.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!