Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.



Solitude and twilight on the late shores. Cold blaze
of the waves' steady visitations. Footstep, hint of moonlight

into the soft dark sand: fist, or halo.
If I leave something white there, if I stand

my body against the night's three darknesses, ocean,
wind, and black calm . . . what

will I call this hour? Of my flesh broken
against the fleshless machinations the always resonant

flooding of time? Storm. Sickness. Waste. Belief. My frail
small human breath in the loud and emptied, emptying, gleam.

The night-flooding mind. Milkweed.

. . . . . .

I come inside and read Carl Phillips and know what it is to face that boundary between mind and world, the sensual boundary where sex and prayer collide. Speak Low, his latest book, in unafraid of the difficulty of describing human emotion, human mind. Our predicament, they seem to insist, whether it is love or history, is a metaphysical one. That is, it is faced with an understanding of abstraction hinged to experience. Plato thought that what exists lay beyond experience, but these poems use nature as a kind of relative explanation, a pathetic fallacy which helps us to try and understand our human considerations of time, love, history, faith. What I love most about Phillips is his unapologetic use of abstraction as a way to consider human experience--he uses a language most poets (perhaps schooled in the standard "show don't tell" arena of MFA programs) avoid for the most part altogether.

Patterns are of particular significance to this book: the physics of light, water, shadow, as well as the movement of animals, birds, and how the human mind might observe or interpret them. His poems have this almost archaic quality that allude to historical moments and intellectual movements of the Enlightenment at once. They are wrought, moreover, in a way that describes what is most familiar to us, though private, intimate, and even erotic: this, for example, is from the poem "Rubicon", a political point of no return, a river Caesar crossed illegally in 49 B.C., devoting himself to war against the senate, and also a game in which the loser's points are tallied for the winner:

. . . that moment in intimacy
when sorrow, fear and anger cross in unison the same face,
when at first can seem almost

a form of pleasure, a mistake as
easy, presumably, as it's forgiven."

History and philosophy here take on a life in the face of the beloved in the most alluring and attentive way. The more I read Phillips' poems, the more dissatisfied I am with a poetry of narrative(?) description. There is a weight to these lyrics that demands a secondary attention, our experience of the abstract world of emotion. How is it we've interpreted not just what we've seen in the world, but what we've felt?

. . . . . . .

Beautiful Dreamer

And when the punishment becomes, itself a pleasure?
When there's no night that goes unpunished? The larger
veins show like map work, as in Here winds a river,
here a road in summer, the heat staggering up from it
the way always, at triumph's outermost, less chromatic
edges, some sorrow staggers. Parts where the mud,
though the rains are history now, refuses still to
heal over. Parts

Untranslatable. Parts where, for the whole
stretches, vegetation sort of strangling sort of makeshift
sheltering the forest floor. To the face, at the mouth
especially, that mix of skepticism, joy, and panic reminiscent
of slaves set free too suddenly. Too soon. --Which way's
the right way? New hunger by new hunger? Spitting
on weakness? Raising a fist to it? The falling mouth falls
farther. Opens. It says, I was the Blue King. I led the dance.

. . . . . .

Eliot, in his 1929 essay, "The Metaphysical Poets" makes a distinction between the Romantics and their 17th century predecessors:

"it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

This is precisely what I love about Phillips: his thought is his experience. Symbolic, or fragmentary, the world takes place in his poem, and his speaker feels them. He does not fail, even if he does not explicate, the many disparate parts of his knowledge and identity.

I'm not a critic, I'm a commentarist--I read so that my inner life can save me from the brutal ugliness of this outer one. I write here about what I love, in a shameless way that a real critic has good reason to berate. A real critic may say something about Phillips' abstraction in that it goes too far for an average reader, that it obfuscates issues of identity, gender, race, class, all of those realms of experience we hold so specific and dear in this age. But when I read him, I feel that his poems teach me to read in a silence I had not before considered, a silence like prayer, a kind of devotion to an inner life I crave. I think if you read closely enough, you'll find these identities: the historical self and the fantasist: the poet and the philosopher: desired god and beloved flesh: all are given semblance. Yes, they are difficult to learn to read, especially, I think, for a novice reader, but they are deeply necessary in that they refuse to simplify the complexity in which the human mind renders itself.

Much more can be made of the comparisons between Phillips and Donne, nowhere perhaps more evident than in Phillips' collection The Rest of Love, in which the lover becomes a god of leather, commandment, relentless conditional belief. But this later collection seems more allusive to spiritual hymnals. Its tone is one of sad reminiscence for a spiritual freedom: to love? To understand death? To be free of bodily suffering? I'm not sure, exactly, perhaps all three. I do know that the joy of these poems comes from the middle of a pain, an isolation, that is basic, something Frost might have written about, inherent, too human, often unspoken for.

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . .


From here, I can see that ritual is but a form of
routine charged with mystery, and the mystery is faith--
whatever, by now, that might be. Twilight. The usual
eyeful of stars appearing, looking the way stars at first
always do: locked; stable.

My friend, to whom
sadness had once felt almost too familiar--Step into it,
he used to say, stare up and out from it--tells me now
he misses it. He wants to know does that mean
he's happy?

In the dark, he turns to me. The silences
rise to either side of us: silence of intimacy when
estranged from risk; of risk itself when there's no one
to take it--nobody willing to; silence, by which the dead
can be told more easily apart from the merely broken . . .

. . . . . . .


Steve Fellner said...

This post concerns me a bit.

Miguel Murphy said...

Lol. Glad to oblige, I think. . .

Or: what on earth do you mean?

Steve Fellner said...


I wanted to think before I said something--which I'm not good at. Common sense eludes me.

I guess this is what irritates me: I feel it's a bit reactionary and cagey. What really is the difference between a commentator and critic. A critic talks about things in a rigid framework like race class gender and has no appreciation for actual beauty?

Do you think that's fair?

The reason why I've always wanted to be a critic (other than my junior high identification for Roger Ebert: we were both fat) is that I loved that critics so much about movies that they became obsessed.

I love the beauty of art more than anything else and I do think in these times we live in art needs to be occasionally looked at in terms of class. I always think beauty can be discussed: sentence variations, rhythym, organization, syntax, employment of abstractions.

But there is something called magic, or at least that's what I'd call it, why a piece of art just pops, why you all of a sudden lose self-consciousness, the ineffable.

Since magic is impossible to convey, why not talk about the things we can: beauty and yea politics (would you feel less threatened by politics if we exchanged it for the word ethics??)

I'm game for that.

I also know that I hate when the isms are employed just because it's easy, just because it makes the person feel good, just because it feels charitable...

But if the motive is emotionally true (a word academics would murder me for) I think if it's fine, as long as its see as a framework, a framework that may need to be used in certain historical times.

That's all. I just felt that for someone who is politically engaged, who made that issue of Ocho, that it seemed a bit conservative, and a bit unkind.

Miguel Murphy said...

Hi! Steve

You know, the comment was more a flag to my own insecurity, because I love to read lit. crit, but find that I'm not very adept at it myself.. . It was a little game with myself, to say what a "real critic" might do, a kind of deliberate mask.

What a plague the ineffable.

Phillips' work in particular seems to me controversial if a reader wants their gay black poets to talk about gay black experience in an accessible way. Instead, he's excessible, and in this way, I'd argue, a great antidote to Doty. Still,

when I'm reading him--and maybe this is my real point in that entry--those issues that are politically dear to me, race, class, gender, have a deep resonance with that bitch of the ineffable,

me, but not in any didactic manner, and not in a way I am comfortable with. I haven't been very good at being a critic in that I haven't really explained what I mean about Phillips' excess. For that matter: Does his syntax, or use of abstraction, or his manner of the line reflect gender, race, or class? Are his highbrow sentences and rhetorical questions evidence of an advantaged or disadvantaged background? I don't necessarily know that I care, since I'm looking for something else entirely when I read him. But I'd also argue that these questions are more easily approached in a poetry that is both didactic and confessional, and since I don't really know anything about the man, he certainly isn't autobiographical in this sense!, I'd feel presumptuous at best.

For me, all good poems are political in that they can be written into the ineffable they seek, and in this way I can read Celan, or Tsvetaeva, or Shakespeare, and feel like I've received something in this prison. Even if we write poems from our gay, single, immigrant migrant worker, 2nd generation American 21st century perspective.

I struggle with this issue, I can't think of a single poem in my first book that mentions my background in such a stark and clear manner. Still, this is the perspective, the grave, out of which my poems are written.

What I'm not as clear about in my post are the ways that Phillips' work approaches these issues, other than to say I see them palimpsested tonally. And though I think this has something to do with their metaphysical quality, I feel too presumptuous to ask his poems for a judgement about black identity, and in many cases, gay identity. This is a flaw on my part as a reader, it's what makes my entry commentary and not real (I should have said, good) criticism.

I certainly don't think beauty is at odds with criticism. In fact, I think great criticism is a defense of beauty. I think a commentarist is someone who fails beauty in the most sentimental fashion.

If I come off as conservative, (me?!) it's because I'm a poor critic and a good commentarist, LOL, and not because I want to escape political accountability, tiresome as that is.

But just for the record, I am regularly unkind.

ardently yours, this bitch of the ineffable

Steve Fellner said...

Don't worry, Miguel, I can be unkind, too. Especially after a bottle of wine at lunch.

Working on a post for you.

With much affection and respect,

My photo
I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.