Book Review

How to start a review of the new Carl Phillips collection Pale Colors in a Tall Field? A number of possibilities immediately jump out at me. The first, the obvious one, is that Phillips is an unusual and reliably great American poet who does not sound like anybody else. And he has been keeping busy lately. This year, this book, and last year, a chapbook—Star Map with Action Figures—almost as long as this book, poems written with a different kind of clarity. The year before that, Wild Is the Wind. And two years before that, Reconnaissance, a book with a horse head on it. In any case, Phillips is the midst of a prodigious run of interesting books.

Phillips keeps developing in many of the same lines of thought that we find in his earlier books, but he is writing, as the abstract painting on the cover of this latest book suggests, with a more pronounced sense of seeming offhandedness that goes with what he has spoken of as a willingness to close poems by veering off into new directions. I’m going to begin with his new book’s ending and then end with what I take his beginning to be. The book’s final poem, “Defiance,” is a whole run of lyric turns, surprises that complicate our sense of the poet as participant in the poem—right from the poem’s existential title that refuses the contemporary cliché of resistance (not the stance, just the word) for something stronger, desperate, and stranger, while at the same time, resisting.

Some say the point of war
is to make the need for tenderness

more clear. Some say that’s an effect of war, the way
beauty can be: Homer’s Illiad, for example; or—
many centuries later—how the horse’s head,

to protect in combat, would be fitted
with a shaffron, a strip of steel,
sometimes mixed with copper, all of it

hammer-worked, parts detailed
in gold. I love you, as I’ve

always loved you, one man says,
meaning it, to another. That doesn’t make

love true. This only needs to be troubling
if we want it to be. Our minds are
as the days are, dark

or bright, says Homer, the words like coral-bells
in a pot made to look like the head of ancient god—
a sea-god, moss for seaweed across the old

god’s face. To believe in ritual is the name
of hope, there lies disaster.

                                    And turned to him.

And took his hand—the scared one; I could
feel the scars . . . Little crowns. Mass

coronation. For by then all the lilies on the pond had opened.

Who knew this was going to be a poem about flowering water lilies? Although we could hardly think of a poem that celebrates tenderness as such, it’s also a dark poem. It doesn’t look at war and violence, for instance, as the dirty work of patriarchy. While somebody could say that Phillips is deconstructing Homer, he is actually reading Homer well. There is a lot of Carl Phillips in this poem. There are two of his leitmotifs that he returns to in his poems, the sexual or romantic horse of the body, and the idea of royalty as being something conferred on people in love and passion, a sort of mock royalty that is also entirely sincere, in the spirit of the Rimbaud prose poem about lovers who just have to announce their royalty in order to reign for a day, and who don’t reign for very long (“In fact they were regents for a whole morning” in the Ashbery version). In last year’s chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures, Phillips has a character called “the King” who sees two younger lovers “fucking” and comes to realize that the younger men are doing something that has to do with grace, and which is as if “they’re singing a song that might go, ‘I’m the king, no you’re / the king and I’m the river, no you’re the river.'” Wonderful equanimity, wonderful democracy. If we go back to Phillips’s first book, the idea of royalty is something extracted from a partner with “drink and the good money / you’ve paid.” All of the books, taken together, show the poet’s developing consciousness.

And Phillips—being a love poet who delights in indeterminate play, of making us search our responses to find the shadowy or sun-dappled theater of the poem—”Defiance” is also a seducer’s song, even if the poem’s seduction happens within marriage. “This only needs to be troubling / if we want it to be” are lines with a potentially comic reserve of oil. Take these lines out. Straighten your shoulders, and walk up to somebody and say them. Then duck. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of lines that are more appropriate and fitting for the years we are living through than “Our minds are / as the days are, dark // or bright, says  Homer,” but the darkness is something that is held in our minds, in all of our mind, and so is the brightness. Realness is grey. Actually, there are a number of poems that have displacements, as Frost might call them, that show that Phillips is paying attention to a whole lot of stuff and simply refusing to deal with it on the level of cliché or from a moralistic and distanced stance. Think of Trump’s ridiculous and under-attended inauguration. Then read what could be a poem about poetic technique, “Cadence,” which could be also about being desired in intrusive ways that you really don’t want.

To be honest, the crowd frightened me at first:
the size, but also how some had—for mouths—just holes
at the back of which, only half discernible,
so that I’d think I’d seen a thing and have to look again,
lay a faint glow, like the last
embers of a fire once believed
untamable . . .

And actually, the royalty of lovers or the masterful poet lodging his lines feels more subversive under these conditions. The poem probably means a lot of things. I’m just picking up on a few of its witty frequencies. I know a lot of people who turn the radio off as soon as that accent from Queens, ugh, starts to penetrate the cheerful light of the kitchen, so I am suggesting that the subversive privacy and delight of Phillips is a good antidote to the times. You have to figure that Phillips delights in the different meaning being in camouflage and, in the woods, might have meaning more for the lovers in his poems, a sartorial bit that pops up in a few places, than it would for a person wearing a MAGA hat about to go hunting. Actually, Carl Phillips is as political as poets who might seem a lot more political.

In Wild Is the Wind, Phillips has a poem that meditates on being a mystery to himself.  From his early work on, he has explored how we relate to the suffering of others, and in some ways, he goes against the complacent grain that many poetry readers, and poets, seem to embrace as straightforward testimony, and a short poem like “Overheard, Under a Dark Enchantment” is a poem in this line.

Compassion first, we were told—and if that won’t work,
compassion’s shadow, pity, to smooth what’s rough.
                                                                                    We find
just holding the victim’s hand, lately, has been exactly enough.

This short poem makes us see our own righteous attitudes in complicated ways. Compassion and pity, as part of our minds, have their dark and self-directed side as well, but the poem also knows sometimes that is about all we can feel, if we become the chorus in a tragedy, which is terrible. Who needs a poetry of witness-porn? Heaney calls this “guilty by-standing.” Distancing stances, pity and compassion, are not working now in the world of these broken and half-rhymed couplets, and maybe it is just as well that we know.  This is interesting as Phillips is a poet who writes poems for an audience which he knows will read or misread his poems in subtly different and credible ways, depending upon, for instance, our relation to gayness, our relation to race, our education, and how we see landscapes in relation to love. I think of James Baldwin’s diagnosis of an “American vision of the world, which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life.” Baldwin relates the generally morally simplistic, self-righteous side of American culture to its racists in “Stranger in the Village” as part of a denial of reality that has other ramifications. Whether Phillips identifies with the first person plural speaker of this poem is left ambiguous; this could be a poem of the self overhearing the self, or the self overhearing the collective self, or the self overhearing a group of people, possibly slightly creepy, perhaps highly sympathetic, from whom he feels a measure of distance. Again, “Overheard, Under a Dark Enchantment” could be the title of a book about the last four years of civic bad magic. It kind of stinks to be part of any “we” sometimes, from the smallest group of two and beyond. Even part of the most sociable poet ever “stands aloof.” The tone of this poem, which is both lovingly social and aloofly distant, is hard to describe.

I like Auden’s Freud better than Freud. Phillips is another practitioner of a technique of unsettlement against simplistic and rigid conceptions of the self we all fall into in life, a danger of both the affirming feedback loop of social media and cultures of intellectual respectability that have been giving poetry flatfeet since forever, a danger of anything requiring as much stability as adult life. Poetry is a way of entering all of the conversations around us with a fresher sense of language and thought. For instance, in “If It Must Be Winter,” Phillips complicates the tired trope of “the gaze” so that the fraught drama of looking at another person becomes a way of telling the truth about the arrogance of power—artistic, sexual, or otherwise—and also a celebration of artistic and romantic life, a romantic career. This poem begins with royalty: “Not crowns, / not conquests defined in terms of how many fear you, or / fear to say otherwise, not by these / will you know your own royalty.” And that sounds right. We do live in a world of weaponized and hostile egos, and there is a lot of fear and aggression out there, and we are beset by a pervasive sense of competition and scarcity mindsets, away from love. But do we need to feel like royalty? Isn’t that problematic? The poetry implies these questions, of course.

The poem ends with the poet looking back at an imagined cavalry of former lovers, “each face / raised towards mine, as if awaiting command— / hungering for it. Forgetful or stupid. I can see / no difference. Look away from me. I haven’t said you can look at me.”  There are so many levels of disclosure here—of judgment, acceptance, bragging, some humor in  hyperbole, maybe an enactment of a moment of intimacy between people who agree, and also of agony, of self-criticism—that the poem is a triumph of moral multivalence, of lines that refuse to be simplified, to be made pat. Generally speaking, Phillips does not serve us poems that are awash in cultural reference aside from Marcus Aurelius and Homer, and some titles like “Skylark” and “Wild Is the Wind” that are haunted by the titles of songs not otherwise evoked, just as we are haunted in our lives by the romantic ethos of songs. “Ruler of my heart,” sings Irma Thomas. “Your love is king,” sings Sade. All of those songs are in the background. Phillips has said that his poems are about the basic things, love and death. A poem like this seems built to outlast a moment with the pathos of nothing lasting. While some qualities like irony and suggestiveness and heart and strangeness seem like perennials to me now, others might be more like bell-bottoms, dress shoes, no socks. The older you get, the more you see fashions change, you get more provisional. That bucket hat is fine. Those frames are fine. Phillips poems actually do have a timeless feeling. Speaking of perennials, I hear “If It Must Be Winter” as a riff on Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains,” a poem that helps Phillips frame his treatment of desire as central to poetry in The Art of Restlessness, and which gives us some key to understanding the pervasiveness of wind and ocean in his Cape Cod summer poetry.

The Phillips sound is an important thing about his work for me. He is an example of a poet who uses a free verse prosody that resists isolated accounts of individual lines. Even though this has been a populist moment in American life, meaning, a moment of public speech that embraces its audiences, that thinks about audiences, a lot, such as they are, the beginning of a rhetorical adventure, and even though the discussion of poetry is usually a lot more rigid than poetry itself, let’s pretend that most of us who are reading poetry are reading as musicians ourselves, more or less in a state of being open to surprise. A lot of his lines have a lot of unstressed syllables, and when Phillips lets these unstressed patches ride at the end of lines, the effect is vaguely classical, and at the same time, this allows him to work more articulated line endings to a punchier effect without resorting to an over-emphasis, and it also allows for a subtle reversals. Bear with me. Starting and then returning to something like hexameters, the opening stanza of “Morphine” is characteristic and shows some of what I am getting at about his sound:

The long fever of summer looks like broken at last, there’s
a coolness that the hours, more and more, leave behind them
as they tumbleweed their way to wherever it is
finished hours go to.
Here, finished is the same as lost, at all,
is this true
where you are?
When I like down in the field now—field that,
for months, by day the red-winged blackbirds
gave definition to, the one fox by dusk, missing half
its tail—I’m the dropped sword in a glittering detachment
of raised ones, which is (never mind how it feels)
maybe as it should be, though sure I’ve thought
to worry, having long been both things: the cigarette
casually let go of at the field’s center: the field on fire.

At first glance, the line endings in the first half of this stanza look sloppy. I underline the parts that are more or less devoid of interest in themselves, where the unstressed syllables and partially stressed syllables fall in greater profusion, at the end ends of the line in the first half and the beginnings of the line in the second half, so that as the stanza draws to its closure, the great passionate images of the cigarette and burning field have more emphasis, quietly emphasized by a ghost of metrical chiasmus set up over the course of a stanza rather than within a sentence or line. While formalist poets sometimes achieve “a rather classical sound,” as Stevens puts it, by using triple feet, anapests and dactyls, in hexameters and pentameters that feel like hexameters, thus making use of a lot more unstressed syllables per line in a more mathematical way, Phillips achieves something that could be called quasi-quantitative free verse by de-emphasizing stresses in a way that feels more or less like a tactic of accident. Only he can use this method, nothing too strict or harumphing along to Victoria Station or Albert Hall, announcing itself at every step. Another way of describing his approach to line is that he creates an effect of leaving part of the sound pattern blurred the way a visual artist might leave parts of an image abstract or unfinished, and indeed the real stresses tend to collect around sensible nouns. Phillips is often playing softly, with quiet, mostly ascending rhythms to set up his effects, never overplaying, but making discoveries abetted by his sound.

The excellent aspects of Phillips as a stylist are part of his originality and classicism. For instance, he has never bogged down in narrative or description. Even when his sense is not immediately easy to grasp as the nuance develops, his poems have economy and speed and a sense of discovery and freedom, even as he returns to his stable of situations, motifs, concerns, recurring landscapes, and he uses something like Latinate sentences that make his readers focus on and search for the development of sense, and, at the same time, we have just touched on the flexibility, sources and resources of his way with line and stanza. In other words, he does not write like somebody who has derived poetry ideas from the workshop or programed experiences of fussing and deadening caution, but from the x-factor and freedom of a personal trip. Somebody like Alan Dugan, who could have cared less whether he seemed loveable in his poems compared to his impulses towards candor, must have been important to him because Dugan also makes poems with a sense of being grounded in the urbanity, toughness and the life-affirming vulgarity and honesty of classical lyric verse and extended epigrams as being good ways to handle our contemporary lives—as poets have discovered periodically for centuries. Is the extended epigram even a category of poem? Some poet dropped that phrase on me once—toga, toga—poets who know the classics really well, not me. Poets who know the classics always even seem to play tennis with little crowns of leaves around their heads. What the hell does dum vivimus vivamus really mean? Don’t ask me. One of my favorite things about Phillips is that he worked as a high school Latin teacher in Boston, and also that he quit. Because poetry is better.

In a way, recent Carl Phillips books are all dealing with the problems and crises of late middle age, of change, the endurance of desire, with time and desire threatening the free composure and integrity of the self from different directions at the same time. The whole country has been going through something like this, with time-denying politicians who would be kings and all of us completely wigging out—danger, camps, sickbed, infirmity, closing time, eschatological zaniness, terrors. Out of this all, we might arrive at sense, and there are things to feel hopeful about. A lyric poem often has its anchor in a sense of lyric crisis: The poet is in trouble, and what is poetry for anyway?  Starting out, we see that the stakes are high for Philips in two of the earlier poems in the collection, one that shows the problem and the other that shows a possible way out. In the book’s title poem, he admits how he has “reached the point in my own life / where there’s so much I’d rather not remember, that/to be asked to do so can seem a cruelty almost; bad enough,/some days, that there’s memory at all, though that’s not / exactly it, it’s more what gets remembered how we / don’t get to choose. . . .”  A great poet free from moralizing self-righteousness, erotic and moral, here Phillips can only remember feelings like free choice and when he “still believed in the soul, apparently. It was that long ago.” The statement is so bleak and bluesy that it almost feels good. However, we can see that he will find his way through the completeness of incompleteness, by process, art and/or love. At the end of “Blue Wash on Linen Canvas, Believed Unfinished,” Phillips imagines the work of an artist, apparently dead, who has also confronted a nihilistic possibility, and met it with heroism where others might despair:

                                    —no, I’d say it was like seeing for the first time
from the sea that bit of land that you always lived on, and watching it
slowly become more small, until maybe you lived there,
or didn’t, here’s the sea
                                    anyway in front of you, here’s the rest,
(the waves whispering, as if waves could whisper), here’s
what happens, not what’s meant to happen; nothing’s
                                                                                    meant to happen . . .

What seems intolerable in this poem, the nothingness being meant, is just what has to be met, and the ellipses that ends the poem suggests that this contest is a life sentence, and we don’t get out of the burden of answering the nothingness. That seems to be what Phillips sets out to do, to keep beginning, and that seems to be what he does throughout this very rewarding book that ends with a mass coronation. That sort of rhymes with mass incarceration. We hear that racist and money-grubbing horror of the last forty years in the background, too, just as we were about to turn the last page. How we answer is up to each of us. Cavafy’s King Dimitrios rolls out when things go sideways, ahead of most of us and the cops in our imaginations, just like an actor who gets out of costume and heads for the next town, utterly possessed of his own choices. They said he was not like a king at all. What did he know? The way to go. Begin again, new book.

About the Reviewer

David Blair lives and works around Boston. He is the author of a new collection of poetry, Barbarian Seasons, and a recent collection of essays, Walk Around, both from MadHat Press. His is also the author of three previous collections of poetry: Ascension Days (Del Sol Press), Friends with Dogs (Sheep Meadow Press), and Arsonville (New Issues Poetry & Prose). Find him on Twitter @BlairWalkAround and Instagram @davidblair15.