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?
. . . . . . .
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
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 . . .
. . . . . . .