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Two bodies, // fucking”: this is the revelation of the first poem in Rock Harbor. Unlike Pastoral and The Tether,Carl Phillips’s two previous books, Rock Harbor drops us in a particular place: the location feels both certain (a rock) and secure (a harbor). And while Phillips has been writing about the body for years, the boldness with which he declares his preoccupation is startling. More familiar—but only because Phillips sounds like no other poet writing today—is what happens next.
. . . two bodies,
fucking. It is difficult
to see, but that much—
from the way, with great
effort, their mouths
seem half to recall or
a song even older,
holier than the one they
fill with—I can
guess . . .
Throughout Rock Harbor, everything is “difficult / to see.” We know where we are. We know what we’re looking at. But the drama of this poetry is a drama of equivocation—the process of a mind discovering that what it sees is the product of what it thinks. And thought, for Carl Phillips, is syntax. In the sentence I’ve just quoted, the subject of the second independent clause is delayed until the tenth line: “that much . . . I can / guess.” In between there is time for a thousand indecisions: “from the way . . . their mouths . . . recall . . . a song.” What kind of song? A song “even older . . . than the one they / fill with.” Older in what sense? “Older, / holier.” How do they recall the song? They recall it “with great . . . effort.” Is their effort consistent? No, they recall “with great / then greater / effort.” Is the effort successful? Perhaps—they “recall or / want to.” Can we even be certain that their physical gesture represents the mental act of recollection? No, “their mouths / seem half to recall.” Emerging from this syntactical thicket, one sentence stretched tautly over eleven lines, Phillips can “guess” with some certainty at what is otherwise difficult to see: “two bodies, // fucking.”
Other poets have worked with the studiously short line that Phillips generally employs; other poets have been obsessed with the endlessly elaborate negotiation of the body and the soul. No other poet sounds like Carl Phillips because no one else locates that negotiation so squarely within the formal procedures of the poetry: the intricately calibrated tension between baroque syntax and brief line feels simultaneously like the action of the mind and the movement of the body. Robert Frost once remarked that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down, but Phillips might respond that writing free verse is playing tennis on a court in which the net is in motion at the same time that the ball is in motion. His poems make us feel palpably that line is the means by which a poet controls intonation and stress. Long before we merely understand these poems, we inhabit the possibility—the threat—of understanding. We hear it, and we trust the poem’s capacity to lure us forward without any promise of closure. At a time when many poets of his generation are exploring a wide variety of sonic shenanigans, Phillips offers the sound of high seriousness, and it is a sound that puts all but a handful of American poets to shame.
I say the “threat” of understanding because Phillips is not at all certain that the clear identification of what we see would be a good thing—even if it were possible. “We remembered, we anticipated a peacock,” says Marcel Proust of the continual process of surprise that constitutes our coming to know another human being, “and we find a peony.” Like Proust, Phillips is intensely aware of the way in which the object of our knowledge shifts from second to second, rendering even the most meticulous observation obsolete. A “face, turning,” says Phillips in “Moving Target,” becomes “a turned one” before we can get the words out. “What so satisfied, / before, about distortion,” he asks, “that, now, I miss it?” Far from being discouraged by the process of perpetually suspended rediscovery, Phillips finds it thrilling. And he does not merely describe the process but embodies it in the syntactical drama of the poetry.
Have I chosen
or is choice a thing
hovering yet, an
intention therefore, from
late, could I hurry back?
What am I going to do with you—or
If stay my hand—where
Choice, its relationship to contingency, its relationship to fate, is a difficult topic for Phillips, and he worries it throughout Rock Harbor. In these lines from “The Clearing” he wants choice to be something always about to happen: to have been chosen is to have been seen too clearly, known too completely. Syntactically, the poem makes us inhabit a state of becoming by offering us a plethora of choices. “Have I chosen / already, / or is choice a thing / hovering yet?” “What am I going to do with you—or // how?” The word or is Phillips’s favorite word, and it may be found on virtually every page of Rock Harbor.
In Latin, which has several different words for or, the wordaut was used to express an ultimatum: either x or y, as in W. H. Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” The words sive or vel were used to express a more equivocal set of alternatives: either x or y but possibly both. Phillips specializes in the latter kind of or, an or that presents a choice without necessarily forcing us to make it, an or that leaves us suspended between alternatives whose juxtaposition seems neither completely satisfactory nor completely dismissible. The sound of this kind of or is the sound of thinking in poetry—not the sound of finished thought but the sound of a mind alive in the temporal process of discovering what it might be thinking. It is no accident that the most famous rumination in English poetry depends upon a sequence of such ors: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
Phillips wants to dwell in questions, not conclusions. In “The Pinnacle,” from The Tether, he recalls playing a game in his head “called Cross the Meadow // or Don’t Cross It” in order to push himself forward on a long walk. Phillips’s syntax does the same thing, deferring predication so that we will be drawn to the end of the poem. At the same time, Phillips’s or is the source of all spiritual possibility. “We but // lived there,” he says in “As a Blow, From the West,”
. . . like so many
birds that, given the chance
not to fly for once in
formation, won’t take it, or
what of choice can a bird know?
Not to know choice is not to be human, to have no syntax. But to have made a choice is no longer to be fully alive, to come to the end of syntax. “Have I chosen / already,” he asks in “The Clearing,” “or is choice a thing / hovering yet”? The wish to hover in the world of or feels rich because Phillips questions its viability.
For like Hamlet, Phillips needs to worry that his finely developed taste for equivocation might become merely strategic, a way of holding the world at bay. But if there can be a romance to the infinite deferral of choosing, a romance of freedom, Phillips’s or is not in service of the will. It is not a summoning of alternatives where none had existed; it is a recognition that because we exist in time, things become different from themselves. A turning face becomes a turned face. A bruise may look like a bell or a wineglass or the spilled wine because it is difficult to account for the way in which the mark of injury passes, leaving us with no evidence that we were never harmed. More damaging than the strategic deferral of choice, Phillips suggests, is the romance of conviction—the assumption that we are free to be single-minded.
“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and,’” said Elizabeth Bishop, describing a syntax that, for many twentieth-century writers, embodied the feeling that the world was no longer held together by an inherited hierarchy of values. No because, no therefore. This syntax leaves us on our own to negotiate a world of loosely connected fragments, and depending on one’s sensibility one might find this world disconcerting or liberating. A world held together only by or is similarly open to change but is more beautifully difficult to negotiate. It is a world in which things—bodies, words, meanings, sounds—are neither completely distinguishable from one another nor completely disentangled from one another. As a result, the mind inhabiting this world is more interested in displaying a multiplicity of possible interpretations than in discerning something we could call the facts (“two bodies, // fucking”). At the same time, however, this mind feels deeply the pressure to call something a fact—to weigh one alternative against another before adding it to the available stockpile of information. It is a mind bent on discovering the limitations of convictions while at the same time refusing to shirk its responsibility for having them.
“How small,” says Phillips at the end of “By Hard Stages,” how threateningly small, is the leap from what is “findable” to what is “found.” But the leap is made every second, and we cannot pretend otherwise.
Though not water,
not the flash, even,
could be water, could
also not be—
called it water. “They
utterly themselves over
that it might
save, or drown them . . .
This is the most powerful or in Rock Harbor. The book suggests that our relationship to the “found” is as hazardous as our relationship to the “findable”: knowledge will not necessarily save us. But the book also suggests that human experience comes with a guarantee that intensity will be matched with intensity. Phillips’s poems offer the same guarantee.
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