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The poems of Carl Phillips are not an easy read; that is their innate pleasure. Over time, they become, to this reader at least, mesmerizing stories to which one returns often for their constant and distinct voice, as well as their inevitably erotic gravitational pull. Phillips gets the sex just right, as few poets actually do. Paul Monette did; Anne Sexton, Thom Gunn, Auden, did. Phillips understands that desire is not a separate component from love–or its lack–but rather a multiplicity of physical and emotional choices which impart the knowledge and actions of retrospect. In his newest volume, Silverchest (FSG), all his elemental fires are burning at once.
This book is a journey of long years, and a culmination of style, structure, and tenor. Here, the luxurious sentences, the idiosyncratic syntax, the flashpoints of insight, and the surprises of form merge to a congress of intimacy and connotation. He writes with the ego of long years–which is adult, hard to come by, and well earned. Brevity continues to be a foundation, but what is meager is not to be confused with what is mean. Phillips gets to the heart of a matter through rumination, but he never overstays his welcome. The book’s title suggests a long life–aged, crowned, loved, and known. These are poems in which men learn from each other deeply: intimacy and the erotic are not elided from confrontation. Memory is always a catalyst for insights of the corporal:
…it’s as if / a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,
briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before, and now
I’ve seen it. It is hard to see anyone who has become
like your own body to you. And now I can’t forget.
Having read all of Phillips’s work, over time I begin to see (and welcome) the reappearances of particular symbols and subjects: swans, kings, crowns, horses…and always the presence of the resonant body. There is a quality of the clairvoyant when these appear; they harbor advent, premonition, and a sense of associative memory:
…How long we’ve traveled,
he and I—more like
how far. More black than all the sorrows
and joys put together that I can remember
when I try remembering, which I mostly don’t,
now the foals,
they’re stallions, Call out
Fanfare, Adoration. Like broken kings,
they lower their heads. Then raise them.
Behind each poem in this volume, there are the ghosts of love and its many layers of experience. Phillips is at once vulnerable and completely made of steel. Unexpected tenderness occurs in moments of unexpected connection. This juxtaposition accounts for some of the most potent imagery in the volume. He matches such instances of connection with a very powerful eye-to-eye, body-to-body confluence of sex and its repercussions:
…Comes a day when
the god, what at least you called a god, takes you not from behind,
the usual, but pins you instead, his ass on your chest, his cock in your
face, his mouth twisting open, saying Lick my balls, and because you
want to live, in spite of everything, you do what he says, heaven and
earth, some rain, a few stars appearing, harder, the way he tells you to,
then not so hard, a tenderness like no tenderness you’ve ever shown.
Phillips has always explored the ravages and joys of men in love, though it is not always the first frame in the film; his work encompasses a large and beautiful range of observation and introspection. Its men harbor no resentment for the past; they simply acknowledge its choices. They are present always. His classical associations, evident in many of his poems, and in particular volumes, is a continuing groundswell for him. When it comes to the observed world, in any capacity, he is never obvious; the oblique angle has the sharper perspective. The sidelong glance takes in more than is assumed. He has the ability with the smallest amount of words to strike you right to the core. His brevity, for the most part, is the perfect small box in which you roam the poem, and then without realizing it, he breaks all four sides and you almost don’t know what to do with the beauty of the open, fresh air that he shows you. You breathe. The poems in this extraordinary collection are full of these breaths; in them, desire earns its lifetime.
By Carl Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374261214, 80 pp.