In the poetry of Carl Phillips, truth is found through a language of evasion, feints, and indirections, conditionals. The poems do not abide in certainties. Phillips’s much remarked upon syntactical invention leads a reader along a trail of words, their endpoint often astonishing. The poet is the kind of trail guide to whom you ask, “How did we get here?” You may retrace your steps to find an answer, although you are more likely to find other questions, or step onto other trails you had not observed before. In a court of judgement, if Emily Dickinson’s dictum, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” were the prescribed oath, Phillips would swear to it, I think.
“I think” is written in recognition of the poet’s frequent use of such conditionals—perhaps, maybe, almost, quite or not quite, most likely, seems, among them. I learned long ago not to write “I think” in critical prose. Of course I think, why say so? Plus I diminish my authority—what with “author” being the root of authority. Using it just now, I find it somewhat freeing. After all, I am imagining what Phillips would swear to; I cannot say for sure. But in so doing, I get a better understanding of the poet’s use of such language. I do not believe it is a “strategy”—an ill-used word in art writing—”perhaps,” “maybe,” “almost” is what he means. I am not the only one who finds this exasperating in Phillips’s work, at times, but then so is getting at truth, or truths, as quicksilver as they are, or as the poet says: “…approximate doesn’t always // have to mean less true: think of how often as close as we could get, / or ever hoped to, wound up being the truth.” (55)
The power and agility of song, and of Phillip’s poetry, is found in how lightly it skips from “remastering truth” to begging “its own truth.”
In this book of poems selected from the last thirteen years, the new poems, “Then the War,” are song-like in the tradition of lyric poetry. The first poem in the book, “Invasive Species,” begins “Switchgrass, beachgrass, trespass, / little song. Little song remastering truth / now begins its own truth little song // deep in the night.” The power and agility of song, and of Phillip’s poetry, is found in how lightly it skips from “remastering truth” to begging “its own truth.” Almost blithely it moves “Past / regret” and turns shockingly towards an image of violence: “Up from the dragged lake of the singer’s throat / little song….” (5)
Phillips is neither a confessional nor an autobiographical poet, which does not mean that these poems do not feel close to the bone. He is in his sixties now, and his use of shadow, the shifts in the light of day, the degrees of darkness and brightness of night have grown more distinctive. The shift in tone of “Invasive Species” Phillips handles like a seasoned photographer; he can create effects both subtle and unsubtle, depending on the mood. I’m in my sixties now too, so there are words I hear repeated like refrains, especially in the new poems: “regret,” “apology,” “forgiveness.” Again, these poems are not confessions, but they sound more like admissions: of regrets linked to ambition and to the cruelty love inflicts.
In the poem “On Coming Close,” (58) a sentence trails away: “…if I think of / regret as I’ve always thought of it, no more useful / than apology, no less impossible to believe in / than forgiveness; if I forget—as I tend to—regret’s / powers…” I make my own admission to a certain chill that goes through me when these words, which seem foundational to humanity, are treated as barely useful or believable. The fact that I think, in reality, even with Jesus, Hollywood, and therapy insisting otherwise, I probably agree. Which elicits a second shudder, especially at the poem’s need to pause here, as it remembers the power of regret—a force that, perhaps, drives these new poems.
I am drawn to the dramatic intensity of these new poems. They sound immediate, at times anguished, at times radiant with beauty, often puzzled, searching. The poet even laughs at his own inclinations. To the question “what, if anything, do you regret at this point” comes “as answer, shaping / your own smallish song around how knowing isn’t / un-knowing, / not exactly, more like deciding to turn abruptly / east after so many years westering, what kind of answer was that?” Indeed, what kind of answer is that? An answer that resists the didactic—”a ground of good and evil”—and moves, as these poems often move, toward experiences of nature: “…a sound / deer still make when in sixes they come down / from the hills at sunrise” and how “their hooves mark the damp ground incidentally, / no particular meaning. It’s true that loves marks the body.” So the poem ends. (21) It is not the answer the question sought. It is more than that.
Phillips is neither a confessional nor an autobiographical poet, which does not mean that these poems do not feel close to the bone. He is in his sixties now, and his use of shadow, the shifts in the light of day, the degrees of darkness and brightness of night have grown more distinctive.
Phillips has organized the book with new poems, “Then the War,” first, which are interrupted by a prose-lyric sequence, followed by more of the new poems. The selected poems follow, in order of their composition, ending with a complete chapbook, “Star Map with Action Figures.” For me, the transition from new to a not-so-distant past takes some readjusting. There are exceptional poems here, but I find myself more fully reengaged when I reach the final poems, those nearer to the narrative situation of “Then the War.”
Yet the poems throughout the collection are connected by more than the fact that the poet wrote them. Poems echo one another; a songbook of images with repeated refrains. “Among the Trees,” the aforementioned prose-lyric sequence, takes you into Phillips’s most potent and poignant poetic landscape: trees, forests, woodlands, which frequently serve as setting and metaphor, places where memories are stored, places to visit or not, places on the edge of what is civilized, places where risks are taken because the forest conceals them: “The secrecy that a forest provides makes it the perfect setting for crime. And for intimacy, which has often been deemed a crime.” “A queer space,” he writes, “a space in which to hunt for sex. What is cruising, if not a form of hunting….” (35)
My first inclination is to read “Among the Trees” as “more real”—Phillips splaying before us the raw prose he rendered into poetic form. The book’s endnotes contain a half-dozen instances in which Phillips is quoting from his own poems in this section, or rephrasing himself, making other contexts, or showing the magic of poetic form: through line breaks, enjambment, caesura, the visible architecture of poems on the page he constructs other tones and meanings. He gives a lesson in prosody, comparing and contrasting two poems in the book, one from an earlier collection, the other more recent: “Story, versus information. Lyric, versus didactic. Long, periodic sentences, versus clipped, straightforward ones.” Then adds: “Catalpa trees aren’t hawthorns. I’m not the man I was.” (41-42) As if to say, you see, the plain-spokenness of prose only seems so.
This is not a book obsessed with the past, or personal history. The older poems are like a platform from which something new will emerge.
Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020 is a book that unfurls—a verb Phillips relates to a feeling of freedom in this collection—with each reading, each retracing of steps, each moment of being lost and found. This is not a book obsessed with the past, or personal history. The older poems are like a platform from which something new will emerge. As at the close of “Then the War,” the wind speaks to the poet: “Let’s see what happens.”