by Carl Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
$23.00 cloth, ISBN 9780374141578
reviewed by Broc Rossell
A former high school Latin teacher, now professor of poetry and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Carl Phillips was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. The judge of the 2010 Griffin Prize and sitting judge of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and the author of twelve collections of poetry, including Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986–2006, he also translated Sophocles’ Philocetes (2003) and penned Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004). Widely anthologized, his poetry has been published in countless literary journals over the past decade, from The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly all the way down. His presence in American poetry is so immense that it is no hyperbole to say that Carl Phillips is an institution; when my Canadian fiancée asked what American poetry was like, I gave her Quiver of Arrows.
Phillips has also become an institution in the blink of an eye. His most recent collection of poems, Double Shadow, is his eighth since 2000—an astonishing output, made even more so when considered alongside his translations and prose. As a consequence Double Shadow is difficult to read without being mindful of the torrent to which it belongs. From the Devotions (1998) and Pastoral (2000) together announced a new, mature major poet, a voice so full of yearning that it was often and aptly compared to John Donne’s. A longing for fusion that clashed against the very notions of containment, against the boundaries of form itself, was deftly drawn in Pastoral’s “Clay”:
The shape of any thing
is the shape a line makes
So whatever my body can recall
of another’s hands—
hard, spent upon it.
This meditation on the essence of contours, of the ways spiritual and sexual ecstasies are both fired and tempered by the human form, remains Phillips’s obsession, but 2009’s Speak Low displayed a wider range of landscape and perception, and Double Shadow continues to pursue more expansive notions of intimacy. In “The Grass Not Being Flesh, Nor Flesh The Grass”:
for real—he came to me. Rest, I said; and for many years,
between love and a way of loving—for they are not
the same—it is true,
he did rest. Fluttering moth, all the more
attractive for the torn, the battered parts. As with
the others before, and since then. Him turning, or
I did: birch leaves when, in a gust of storm,
they’ll show the side that’s silver
The elements (or Phillips’s equivalent, human figures) give birth to the physical world, and Phillips paints the colors of love and loss the same way one might describe the undulations of sunlight on the surface of the ocean, a flock of terns rushing to and from water at low tide, or a body rising to meet a hand.
Knowing Phillips’s territory—the shifting boundary between union and disunion, the electric and erotic exchange between gods and men—Double Shadow is a fitting if unsurprising title. In fact, the book is unsurprising in both positive and negative ways. Double Shadow collects forty-two pages of poetry, Phillips’s most slender collection, and so it’s difficult to hide more slender poems, such as “Clear, Cloudless”:
Tonight—in the foundering night, at least,
of imagination, where what I don’t in fact
believe anymore, all the same, is true—
the stars look steadily down upon me. I look
up, at the stars. Life as a recklessly fed bonfire
growing unexpectedly more reckless seems
neither the best nor worst of several choices
within reach, still. I wear on my head a crown
of feathers—among which, sure, I have had
my favorites. Fear, though, is the bluest feather,
and it is easily the bluest feather that the wind loves most.
The scale of this poem is small; in a classical contemplation of the cosmos, fear, experience, and wind all vie for insignificance. The poem isn’t reckless; it considers the idea of recklessness, and so Phillips’s widely and justly praised dexterity with the sentence is squandered.
But if there are lesser moments, there are also occasions for celebration. To read Phillips at his most lyrical is to follow a syntactical odyssey through lands where body and soul confuse each other with their mimicries, and defy the distinction. This is a poetry that is both thrilling and honest. Also exciting is evidence in the pages of Double Shadow that Phillips has begun to enunciate a grander vision. In “Sky Coming Forward” he asks:
then remember . . . What if, between this one and the one
we hoped for, there’s a third life, taking its own
slow, dreamlike hold, even now—blooming, in spite of us?
In moments like these he shows himself to be our veteran of devotion: resigned, defiant, hopeful, and alert. But his eye roves farther now, and in Carl Phillips’s new landscape, the third life is nothing less than a new kind of humility, a regenerate awe.