I know exactly what I will find when I read Carl Phillips’ poetry—deft lyricism, deep investigation. I will find hesitation, flight, luck, mercy, brutality, grace, and something like prayer. I will find what is flashing, torn, unraveling, unfolding, flickering; what opens, has opened, is opening. I don’t go to Phillips to find out something new, but rather, to be joined by another (the voice in each poem), to take some small comfort in my disquiet. Not to be comforted, but to be accompanied. There are a few things I know I will walk with in Phillips’ poems—I will be involved with the trees, with the stag, with the dog, with the sea, the hawk (or any bird), with insects and wind, with how wind moves through the world. There will be ruin and devotion. I will be involved with dreams, with stillness and fields, with fear and desire.
Let me say this another way: I go to the poetry of Carl Phillips because I don’t know, and because he doesn’t seem to know either, and way that he lives in his unknowingness helps me live in mine. His is a poetry that simultaneously sharpens and softens the unknown, and parlays in doubt as a tool for both disassembling and utilizing all those capital A abstractions of the world. Put simply: Phillips is a poet of asking. In the asking is both pure restlessness and delight.
The syntactical dexterity in Phillips’ poetry, his long lines made not by margin-to-margin arrangements but by twists of dashes and chains of ellipses, is an essential part of what makes his voice unmistakable. For Phillips, I think the poem is kind of falling open, the reader a witness to the intricate falling (a participant even, if one reads the poem aloud), like watching Alice falling into Wonderland, falling in slow motion self-awareness through the passage, transforming. Phillips’ poems fall through space the way a trained dancer can deliberately fall, with precision and elongated, active muscle. When a dancer leaps, we assume that the choreography of the piece is designed for her to land on her feet—It is always a surprise when the design calls for a further descent, and Phillips’ poetry always goes further.
In the poem “Steeple,” there are only two sentences. “Maybe love really does mean the submission of power—/I don’t know,” reads the first. The rest of the poem is fourteen lines of unspooling thought, carried by punctuation, that oft under-developed and unchallenged muscle of poets. A dash is not a comma is not a semi-colon; Phillips’ usage is so succinct and subtle, the poems require careful reading to catch why each crack in thought is given its marks.
; even now—as I love
the sluggishness with which, like sacrifice, like the man
who, having seen, no, having understood himself at last,
turns at first away—has to—the folded black-and-copper
wings of history begin their deep unfolding
The best way I’ve found to read Phillips’ work is quietly aloud, to oneself. Only in this way can one really feel the different types of breath he directs us to, the different types of turning.
I had read the entirety of Reconnaissance, Phillips’ twelfth book of poetry, before truly taking in the collection’s title. A reconnaissance is an investigation, an expedition to see what’s out there. It describes a physical act, the act of collection, a survey of the land. And, it is often military— reconnaissance paired with mission: the going-forth is urgent, life-altering. Phillips’ collection is woven with this urgency, endless surprise, the turn of expectation, a faltering certainty. The title poem, here in full, is also offered as the first:
All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin
with patience. I have practiced patience. As for piety
being, to superstition, as what had seemed a fortress
can be to not-a-fortress-in-the-end, at all: maybe so.
—Why not move like light, reflected, across the snow?
Here we see the kinetic energy of interrupted assertion so often present in Phillips’ work. The murmur of “I’m told,” inside a declaration that opens the book points to the poet’s finely tuned stance: all this might not be true. “But what if all suffering is in fact for nothing,” begins another poem. These characteristic strokes—qualifications of doubt and open disclaimers—give Phillips far more authority than were he to claim knowledge as irrefutable. I hereby crown Phillips as contemporary poetry’s king of What If, Maybe, Perhaps and Or. After each admission of unknowing, Phillips is free to go anywhere in the poem, to ask anything, and the way he wields this uncertainty is what lights the path of each reconnaissance itself.