Speak Low
Carl Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23.00 (cloth)

“The Raft,” one of the finest poems in Carl Phillips’s latest book, begins this way:

Color of rust, russet. Color of fall. I can lay my head
on the wet sand that is nobody’s chest now—not a chest
at all—or I can lift it. Why not lift it? More fugitive than
lost, more spent than stranded, if I’ve been no stranger
to disillusionment,
                                  nor am I enslaved to it.

The voice of the poem trembles excessively into a description of the coming of autumn—we don’t need such hints in order to know what Phillips is talking about. The voice lands on “fall” more as an incantation than as an orientation and only after trilling around two words for color.

This sense of deliberation then bleeds into the practical, but seemingly insignificant, question that follows: should the body lay the head down or lift it? The poet insists on giving both options, each of which is admittedly obvious, before making the decision. We see his fixation on all the possibilities for action, followed by an interest in taking action, represented not by taking it, but by a strangely confrontational interrogative: why not? Then not one, but three comparisons in a shortened version of Phillips’s signature syntax, nearly all the verbs translated into nouns or participles, the main verb passive, the “if” an almost invisible hinge in the middle of the sentence. It is as if nothing—not the season, nor the physical position of the body, nor the condition of the psyche—could be understood except in the presence of its opposite or absence. Whoever thought that lifting your head would be such a big deal?

But lifting your head is a very big deal for Carl Phillips, which he makes clear by separating the options, to lay and to lift, with a place that is an absence of something, and then nothing—“not a chest / at all”: a complicated sentence, to say the least. No American poet uses syntax like Phillips, who makes reading a sentence feel like holding a breath during a complicated yoga pose. And few American poets write about the body and erotic life with the same sense of purpose as Phillips. These two things are connected. A palpable fear of inconsequence—that what one has thought, or been, or done, might not mean anything, let alone matter—is registered in form by Phillips as intricate, double-backing, second-guessing syntax. The complexity of Phillips’s syntax reflects his interest in the confusion of possibilities for judgement—baffling, terrifying, and irresistible—that the erotic life brings into focus. A sentence is not just like a body, Phillips seems to say—it is a body, made for action. The subject of the poems is like the subject of a sentence in Latin, preceded by everything connected to the verbal construction. What is normal in Latin becomes, in English, a body in peril, subject in both form and content to the decisions and feelings of another.

A great many contemporary poems gravitate toward the fragment, and toward the fragment’s own form of brusque sentimentality. The world of the fragment threatens to be a world without experience, a world in which human action is irrelevant or inconsequential. It threatens to break form before form itself has been established: when a poem begins in distress, it can be as if there never was a world without it, no calm to return to. The poem is then left to narrate its broken language rather than perform it, and its activity becomes habit rather than an action driven by necessity.

But Phillips makes his uncomfortable home in the sentence, or, sometimes at the ends of poems, in articulate fragments that still hint at the sentence’s phantom limbs. In the world of the sentence, rules have to be broken in order to be seen, so transgressions against form are meaningful and even moral. As Phillips indicates in his title poem, which opens the book, form illustrates transgression in tension with the obligation it refuses but always recognizes: “the less-than-clear distance between / everything we know we should do, and all the rest—all / the rest that we do.” In the world of the sentence, the question is not just whether language means something, but how things could come to matter.

Phillips’s poems have grown more obsessed with the erotic, to the exclusion of the meditations on death and beauty that occupy his previous work.

In Speak Low, Phillips continues to imprison and release himself through syntax—something he has done for ten years and in almost as many books. But there is a new component present in these poems, a palpable restlessness with the forms that he himself has grown used to, shown brilliantly not by an escape from those forms, but by an intensification of self-questioning, as in “Southern Cross”: “When it comes to the gods crippling those whom / they love most, as a way of ensuring in the beloved both / fear and need—where, in fact does it ever say so? Did I / make that up too? All of it? It’s a myth in my head?” Often, the poet breaks his syntax, stopping the sentence in mid-thought and beginning another.

The mood of the book is midsummer, and many of the poems take place in that season, not wistful yet, but meditative, just long enough after the afterglow to know deeply the glow’s past. The book’s title is a Kurt Weill song that, via Billie Holiday, speaks of a doomed summer romance. The summer mood of “A Little Moonlight” begins with a single sentence of epic proportions, a drama of syntax in a single breath:

Given inconstancy, the resistless
affair that has been my body (as if
there were no place to go from anywhere except
deeper, into those spaces the hand makes by
tugging the flesh, where it is partable,
more open, or as if I believed, utterly, what
legend says about violation—how it leads
to prophecy, the god enters the body, the mouth
cracks open, and a mad fluttering, which
is the future, fills the cave, which is
desire, luck and hazard, hazard and luck),

I should perhaps regret more. But it’s grown
so late: see how dark, outside?

Phillips uses a delay tactic here taken from Latin sentence structure—waiting until the end to introduce the main verbal clause—and gives over the middle of the sentence to a wildly illustrative, terrifically confessional, out-of-control simile. That simile also goes back in time, meditating first on the speaker’s lived experience. Then, without literary identification, the voice turns toward the myth of Apollo entering the Sibyl, as if that, too, were part of the unconscious the poem needed to dig up—indeed, as if there were no separation between myth and person at all. Phillips does not always, or even generally, literalize a syntactic swerve like this with a parenthesis, but it’s helpful here. The subordinated activity of such a sentence presents human agency as a restless, “resistless” affair, a battle with self-knowledge as much as a battle for it.

Is it possible to say that Phillips’s poems have grown even more obsessed with the erotic, to the exclusion of the meditations on death and beauty that occupy some of his previous work? In Speak Low, love scenes repeat, often as scenes on a battlefield, and their players know that they repeat:

. . . Frankly, it’s the inevitability part
that I most adore, still in the inevitable. It makes of blame
an irrelevance. We’ll take up once more the two positions that—
favoring depth over range—we’ve mastered, finally: this time it’s
your turn to be the bonfire; I’ll be the distance through which
the bonfire, unspecifiable, could at first be any small point
of restlessness—lit, contained—in a blackening field.

Often without judgment, the lovers take (or are assumed to be taking) fated, almost ritual actions. What is at stake is not the freshness of love but something deeper, what love becomes after it is known, what in “Rubicon” is called “that streak of cruelty to / which by daybreak we confess ourselves resigned, by noon / accustomed, by night / devoted.” Repetition—and resignation, its psychic interpretation—initiates an endless cycle in which known powerlessness does not obviate struggle: “like beaten slaves by now / used to it, they rise, and they fall.” There is a wisdom here, imparted, quite practically, from the fixed but continually reversible dynamics of S&M, which takes an assumption of power’s inequality and renders it consensual; there is a love of role-playing that plunges the speaker more deeply into vulnerability.

‘Poetry–the kind that makes us question what we had thought we knew—is the result of a generative restlessness of imagination.’

These poems feel their own confinement even as they delve into the perils of intimacy. Vistas and views appear (a field, for example, or the ocean), but often from the window of a closed room. The poems, when they are not approximately sonnet length, seem to wish they were. When they find a form longer than a page, they do so only by twists and turns of thought and line that begin to feel torqued and ever more chaotic. There is, on the part of the poet, an appealing and deliberate refusal to be too certain in the face of his repetitions. Phillips does not quit his participation in love’s activities, if only because he knows what is going to happen. As he writes in “Night Song,” “I remain persuadable.”

But how does the Carl Phillips poem remain persuasive? Isn’t there a danger that the repetitions will turn into formal routine? How does the poem itself avoid mannerism, the ossification of a formal practice into form too deeply known to the writer to have any interesting effect on the reader? Phillips himself wrote about this in a recent essay in New England Review: “Poetry—the kind that does in fact give us the world as we had not seen it, that makes us question what we had thought we knew (and this is finally the only thing I am willing to call poetry)—poetry is the result of a generative restlessness of imagination” (emphasis in original). The worst thing a poem can do is know too deeply what it is doing.

Still, a poem has to admit that its purpose is to question what we thought we knew, not to know from scratch. The field of the poem is known terrain, and the aesthetic problem for the poet is not only to have it be new, but to make it new. The poems of Speak Low do this by refusing closure throughout, and not just in their concluding sentences. Thus they activate restlessness as an experience, and not just as a condition of mind. For this poet, “the generative restlessness of imagination” has become not only the reason for form, but form itself.

Returning to “The Raft,” we can see how that poem’s own form uses restlessness to achieve a vivacity that seems, at first, mental, but reveals itself to be acutely physical. At the end of the poem, the speaker reconsiders the figure he has chosen for the truth—and finds a new figure:

. . . I had thought the truth
would be a falcon—for how it rarely soars, as much for
that precision with which, on wings instead built for speed
mainly, it descends, then strikes. But it is not a falcon.
The truth is a raft, a rough-at-each-of-its-edges affair of many
sturdinesses lashed together. Standard beauty; realized
expectation. The lucky ones get to choose, and they choose
when they want to. From this distance, it’s hard to tell at first.
The raft’s moving closer, I think. Though it’s still far away.

The raft is Phillips’ own version of Wallace Stevens’s “poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice,” a resting place which, however temporary, is good enough, and allows the mind to rest, or at least to focus. But then something else happens: the raft stays in the poem as the real, and the poet returns to real time. The priority at the end of “The Raft” is to keep the poem’s eye on what is actually happening.

In Speak Low, the poet frequently calls himself back, at the end of some divergent train of thought, into real time, reminding his reader that these mental meanderings are as perishable as the life of a body or the span of the day because they happen in a body. True, the complicated sentences in the middles of the poems often begin and end with abrupt takeoffs and landings, sudden reentries into the world. And Phillips’s “particular form” could not have been perfected without his understanding of the classics, which lends an archaic, translated quality to his writing, as confusing as it is sophisticated. But he never fails to return us to the body of experience, the moments of perception that inspire his meditations. In Speak Low, he tries assiduously to do so, more than hinting that he is as much an epistemological poet—a maker of knowledge-structures, a theorist of perception—as he is a love poet. Or that the two kinds of poem—in the hands of writers such as Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Phillips—are actually one and the same.