Monday, October 27, 2008

Review of Riding Westward from 30.1.

Carl Phillips. Riding Westward. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. $12.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-374-53082-2), 53 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Carl Phillips has long written poems that ignore contemporary American aesthetic doctrines, and that fact alone is heartening. He is entirely comfortable with abstraction, often building his poems on lofty language, and he is unafraid to “tell” as much as he “shows.” His poems speak in the tone of one speaking to an intimate about shared experience, without the kind of sarcasm we often call irony. Consequently, the poems tend to allude to experiences in a fragmentary way, as if the reader has prior knowledge of them and needs only small reminders. What is more, the reader is seldom sure where or when the situation described by one of Phillips’s poems is occurring. Because of these qualities, the poems in Phillips’s latest collection, Riding Westward, may at first confound readers who are used to so-called accessible poetry. In fact, “accessibility” is one of those contemporary doctrines I mentioned above—one which Phillips thankfully ignores. The following lines from “Erasure,” the first poem in the collection, are a good example of these qualities:

Above us, the usual branches lift unprophetically or not, depending:
now spears; now arrows. There’s a kind of tenderness that makes
more tender

all it touches. There’s a need that ruins. Dark. The horse
comes closer.

Here, we have “the usual branches,” as if they are usual not only to the speaker of the poem, but to the reader as well. We have fragments of a scene—branches lifting, darkness, a horse referred to with a definite article as if we already knew it was there—but the scene remains fragmentary throughout the poem, and we never quite know where or when we are situated. The above lines also illustrate Phillips’s propensity to “tell” as well as “show,” his refusal to shrink from making authoritative pronouncements: “There’s a need that ruins,” and “There’s a kind of tenderness that makes more tender // all it touches.” However, the tone of this poem is quite complicated, because not only are we assumed to understand this fragmentary scene, but we are presented with a speaker who makes both authoritative statements and equivocations: “the usual branches lift unprophetically or not.” In this case, the equivocation is intensified by the double-negative construction. Double negatives recur throughout the collection, working as semantic counterbalances to the authoritative tone of the poems’ speakers, as their logical clumsiness has the effect of undermining what might otherwise be effortless pronouncements.

Another potentially disorienting aspect of these poems is the fact that the titles often have nothing overtly to do with the poems or their dramatic situations. There is “Bright World,” which does not describe brightness at all, or even the world very much; there is “The Way Back,” which is about “the urge to make meaning”; there is “The Smell of Hay,” which is about memory, but mentions no situation involving either hay or the sense of smell; there is “The Cure,” which describes a dying tree, which ends up as a metaphor for history, and light falling through it, a metaphor for human lives—but no sign of a cure anywhere for the dying tree or the human lives tumbling through its branches. These are only a few examples of titles that are not linked to their poems the way we typically expect them to be, since they are not descriptive of the poems’ content. Instead, the titles function evocatively: their effect is to create mood by association. In the same way, his poems are anything but descriptive of the world or of life—they do not set out to paint a clear picture of the world or of experiences, as we have largely come to expect poems to do. Phillips’s poems are far too abstract and fragmentary to do that. But they do something equally important by letting the reader’s imagination participate more fully with the speakers of the poems. While reading this collection, one often finds oneself unconsciously repositioning oneself imaginatively in order to create, along with the poem, the story to which the poem alludes. The fact that this is effective is a testimony to the power of this collection—it is not something a lesser poet could achieve.

One way to describe Phillips’s poems is to acknowledge that they function more evocatively than descriptively. What I mean is that they are not by any means about life, which would be no accomplishment at all; rather, they are of life, out of it, and convincingly so, which is a great accomplishment indeed. His poems are informed by and allude to experience without having to entirely create or recreate experience, and this is the source of their undeniable authority. In “Turning West,” Phillips himself makes a similar distinction when he mentions “a distance like that between writing from a life / and writing for one…” (Phillips’s italics). Writing for a life might mean writing in order to have a life, to create one out of a paucity of living or being present in the world. This is decidedly not the kind of writing Phillips does. It is clear that his poems are from life. The evidence of this is the powerful effect they have on the reader who is willing to lay aside expectations for simply “accessible” poetry and who is willing to imaginatively engage, as with an intimate, in these evocative, allusive conversations.

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