APRIL 16, 2020
IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY at the cover of Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s Living Weapon, you can just make out — almost imperceptible beneath the red, brushstroked letters of the book’s title — a faint glimpse of a cobblestoned street. Like the poetry it contains, the cover follows a pattern of accretion: the cover of Phillips’s first book, The Ground, depicts the same street lined with parked cars; his second, Heaven, offers the same photo again — though this time obscured by a blue wash of rain and what appear to be either suds or paint or, given the title, clouds. Living Weapon continues this trend, though with such subtlety that if you haven’t been following Phillips’s work since the beginning it might slip past you.
Rewarding both close and sustained attention from the outset, Living Weapon stands as the last installment of a poetic trilogy. The first epigraph (a long Wallace Stevens quotation) affirms this: “Three times the concentrated self takes hold, three times / the thrice concentrated self, having possessed / the object, grips it in a savage scrutiny…” Below the surface of Stevens’s typically cryptic wording, we see plainly Phillips’s vision for Living Weapon: whatever work was left unfinished — whatever ground or heaven left unvisited — in the first two books will be under “savage scrutiny” in this third.
While Living Weapon takes risks its predecessors didn’t — none greater than the two prose sections that bookend the collection — the poems build, for the most part, on the foundation laid in the previous two books. “And so, what comes after Heaven / If not itself?” his speaker asks at one point, all but directly addressing this idea of trilogy. Later, Phillips recycles the title of “Music for When the Music is Over” (a poem from The Ground), employing it as the first line of a poem entitled “The Peacock.” He writes, “Music for when the music is over / Is what a poem is.”
These lines point to a preoccupation with ars poetica that began in The Ground and continues through Living Weapon. Over and again, Phillips strives — within his own poems — to chip away at an explicit definition of what exactly we mean when we say “poetry.” As he writes in a poem from Heaven: “A poem is a view of the Pacific / And the Pacific, and the Pacific / Taking in its view of the Pacific…” This kind of intellectual funhouse can be, at turns, both exhilarating and wearisome — like looking through an infinity mirror (which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most prevalent images throughout the trilogy).
But this preoccupation with meta-definition is not entirely self-referential. It’s difficult, at times, to turn a page in Living Weapon without bumping into a familiar face: Elizabeth Bishop arrives just pages after W. H. Auden; Orpheus seems to pop up every 10 pages or so; and, in “Who is Less than a Vapor?,” Phillips offers a loose reinterpretation of a passage of John Donne’s prose — which he calls not “quite a found poem or an erasure” but rather “language in the crux of being instrument, weapon, and tool all at once.”
Against the backdrop of this keen awareness of poetic tradition, Phillips’s decision to begin Living Weapon with a long prose passage stands out as a risk. The passage — entitled “1776” — is spoken by a lyric “I” who observes the Freedom Tower (“1776 feet in the air”) and who, we come to realize, has a pair of enormous wings. Late in the passage, the speaker describes the first time he descended to the Freedom Tower from the sky above:
My feet felt for a landing, found it, and touched down on the cold nub. Like a gargoyle. I crouched down and rested my hands beside my feet to better balance myself. The intense warmth of the red light emanating from the beacon surprised me. It made me red all over and everything I saw from that perch was also filtered red.
In these sentences, in which Phillips withholds explicit definitions of his art, trusting instead his poetic intuition, we find a captivating image of a figure isolated from the city’s chaos. The entire piece evokes Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red — another prose-adjacent piece about an isolated individual. Like Carson’s Geryon, Phillips’s “gloriously winged / Angel” (as he defines it retroactively in one of the book’s last poems) feels his wings as both gift and curse. “Here is where I can be me, whatever I am,” the speaker says simply near the end of the piece.
“1776” ends with an image that brings into focus many of Phillips’s temporal concerns. He writes: “Slowly, I rose to my feet, adding myself to the tower’s height, and waited there for day to break, for the sun to rise, and for that one moment in the dawn when the light takes measure of us and welcomes us to the machine.” Besides being brilliantly rendered prose, this single sentence gives a concrete body to Phillips’s intellectual struggle with the past. His angel stands up slowly at the top of a tower whose height — 1,776 feet — is a symbol of the past. When he does so, he adds himself — his own years — to the tower’s height and, by extension, to history.
If all this talk of the poet’s relation to the past calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” then you’re in good hands with Rowan Ricardo Phillips — who offers, about halfway through the book, a two-line poem that takes its title verbatim from Eliot’s essay. The entire poem reads:
I wandered through each chartered street
Till I was shot by the police.
These two lines map, respectively, onto the two composite parts of Eliot’s title. In the first line we find “tradition,” as Phillips quotes (with very light adjustment) the opening line of William Blake’s “London”; and, in the second line of the couplet, we see “individual talent”: a subversion of a particularly Romantic understanding of poetry by a black poet writing in an age where news of police brutality comes as consistently as the seasons — and all this within the confines of a single (slant) rhyming couplet.
This blend of tradition and individual talent astonishes in both its intensity and restraint. The poem calls to mind Marilyn Nelson’s essay “Owning the Masters,” in which she writes:
The history that created the traditional canon has systematically excluded blacks and women, and a whole lot of other groups, from just about every other hierarchy of honor. […] How can I read Blake without an awareness of the black-white symbolism by which eighteenth-century Europe justified the hurt it was putting on African and American people?
Phillips’s poem offers a response to the call Nelson puts out in the rest of her essay. “For us the labor is twofold,” she continues. “[T]here is the labor of studying the literature, then there is the additional labor of rising above its time-bound limitations.” In this short poem, Rowan Ricardo Phillips works at this “additional labor” with an acuity of mind and ear that invites his reader to join him in the joy (and pain) of discovering what a full awareness of time brings.
As with many daring impulses, Phillips’s constant shuttling between centuries can, every so often, lead him astray. In the sonnet “November Nocturne,” for example, Phillips offers a gorgeous recreation of New York City’s “soft froth of lamplight and scrubbed-out stars.” But as the poem continues, the tone shifts. Phillips considers
The wine-tonned mouth swollen with the last words
Of Spring or April or Night or The Plain
Sense of Things, the worlds in it burning, ways
Of I am now burning, feeling the Bern
In the back of a cab without being burned,
Then being burned. I wonder what I learned.
Despite both the music and laudable control of that last sentence, the poem struggles to recover from the inclusion of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign slogan — which, wry smile accepted, grates against both the Homeric tone of “wine-tonned mouth” as well as the freshness of thought present in “The Plain / Sense of Things, the worlds in it burning.”
Still, Phillips’s desire to meet us where we are — surrounded by the noise of campaign slogans and epic similes alike — leads to some of the collection’s highest-soaring moments. In “The Testament of Orpheus,” he writes: “This is not about us. The drained sky meets / The drained moon in a compromise of dawn.” Though the title points to the Orpheus myth as the poem’s ostensible subject, these lines speak to us with an immediate, unfiltered clarity.
These moments of frank speech appear throughout Living Weapon like brief rests in a classical fugue. In “Violins,” the speaker leaves all adorned language aside and states directly: “We are all in prison. / This is the brutal lesson of the twenty-first century.” Nor is this dire declaration true of this century only; in “Even Homer Nods,” Phillips picks the “brutal lesson” back up through winding, discursive syntax that veers from the story of Homer’s Achilles all the way to our frightened contemporary moment. The poem begins: “You can be a mother who knows a god. / And you can ask him for magic armor, / A shield the width of Saturn’s widest rings, / Some helmet in the new or ancient style.”
After, the poem moves toward our present moment, noting the “dull lull” of contemporary life that
… in new darkness we feel a need
For, a consolation of presence,
As when my mother passed me the soft shield,
The breastplate like rice paper, the helmet
Bright as pyrite can be, we already
Knew that this was part of the old cycle,
That I would die soon, without a weapon,
And she’d live on, and we’d do this again
And again and again, without ever
Knowing we were the weapon ourselves,
Stronger than steel, story, and hydrogen,
Here in America, where we wonder,
Still, after everything that’s happened, why
Anyone bothers to read the classics.
As in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” these lines show Phillips doing what he does best — alchemizing the poetic tradition. Where before Achilles’ shield was “the width of Saturn’s widest rings,” it becomes — just a handful of lines and centuries later — simply “soft.” The same fate befalls both the breastplate and helmet, which Phillips renders, respectively, as “rice paper” and fool’s gold.
It’s impossible to read these lines — in which the “magic armor” loses both its luster and its ability to protect — without the valence of Phillips’s earlier declaration: “I wandered through each chartered street / Till I was shot by the police.” This poem urges us to ask whether even Achilles’ “magic armor” could protect this speaker, who recognizes himself as “part of the old cycle” of death and lamentation. And though the final three lines ring somewhat hollow as they attempt closure without closure, they do call to mind Derek Walcott’s famous declaration: “The classics can console. But not enough.”
This problem — that literature can, in fact, console, though, as Walcott affirms, only partially — hums under the surface of almost every poem in Living Weapon. Throughout the collection, Rowan Ricardo Phillips refuses to abandon the past; instead, he interrogates its ghosts — in all their terrible admixture of violence and beauty — and, despite every reason not to, he sings.
Will Brewbaker was born and raised in Alabama. He is currently a Zell Postgraduate Fellow of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Narrative, Image, and 32 Poems.