In the Blood
Northeastern University Press, $9.95 (paper)
According to his theory of the “Strong Poet,” which Harold Bloom has been refining for almost 20 years now, the dynamic by which a young poet works toward definition and self-ratification is essentially an Oedipal process. The “younger” poet — often male, as the Freudian pattern seems to assume — considers his place in relation to the Fathers and then struggles to declare his independence, his autonomy, the authority of his own voice in relation to that (potentially overwhelming) tradition. The theory seems to be more popular among critics — many of whom don’t read poetry, at least not contemporary poems by poets other than the Fathers — than it is among working writers. It’s a shock, therefore, to read the opening movement of Carl Phillips’s elegant, urbane, meditative first book, In the Blood. Throughout the first phases of the book’s argument, Phillips seems to locate himself squarely within the Bloomian paradigm. He opens his poem “Passing”: “When the Famous Black Poet speaks, I understand//that his is the same unnervingly slow/rambling method of getting from A to B….” It sounds as if Phillips’s argument is going to be literary, an encounter with the poetic tradition of the Fathers. But then Phillips completes his sentence — and his stanza. What he recognizes is the same method “that I hated in my father,/my father who always told me/don’t shuffle.” Something wonderful, indirect, and sly just happened: with his implacable equanimity, Phillips begins what sounds like a literary argument, implicitly invoking Freudian thematics of literary influence, and then makes it matter in a strongly personal way, realizing the truth of the “Oedipal” metaphors and yet making it his own, bearing tribute to the fathers’ advice even as he resists it. Thus the poem works an argument about inheritance and heritage, about the personal in the context of the traditional, about sexuality as the vehicle of self-realization at the same time it is, paradoxically, the agent of continuity between generations. This “tradition” (of poets, of African-American men, of American masculinity) is a line of continuous resistance, a chain of ruptures, a celebration of what is not there to be celebrated, what makes itself felt by its absence:
I have spent years tugging
between my legs,
and proved nothing, really.
I wake to the sheets I kicked aside,
and examine where they’ve failed to mend
their own creases, resembling some silken
obstruction, something pulled
from my father’s chest, a bad heart, a lung,
the lung of the Famous Black Poet
saying nothing I want to understand.
This example is a small one, and not particularly the most beautiful moment of a finely-realized poem. Still, it is representative of the ways many of these fine, careful poems work: in their attention to the truth of longing and to the side-long glances of affection toward what is withheld, hidden, inarticulate (exactly because it is withheld, unarticulated); in their candor; in their rhythm of slow meditations carried somehow in short lines; in their good humor and their willingness finally, to forgive, but sideways.
Phillips’s book is scrupulously organized, so finely-tuned that at first one sees the rippling surface elegance more than the intellectual scaffolding. That’s as it should be. Eventually one recognizes the skeleton of a careful argument about desire and internalization, about life in the body, embedded in the sequence of these poems: the eroticism (homo-erotic in this case, without political agenda) and narratives of betrayal and abandonment by individual men in section two segue into the poems of prayer and divine longing of the next sections — as if Phillips were tartly reversing Emily Dickinson’s terms, “Parting is all we know of heaven/and all we need of hell.”
The cumulative surprise in rereading the whole collection is Phillips’s uncanny confidence, underlying the apparent diffidence and meditative slowness and accuracy. He seems to be discovering the inventive connections of the poems in the last half of the book, and yet in retrospect one sees how sure his footing is, and how carefully, with what reticence, he has led, not followed, his argument. The book contains individual poems of great beauty (my favorites include “Undressing for Li Po,” “Leda, After the Swan,” “Death of the Sibyl,” “The man we’re looking for,” the sequence “In the Blood”) which claim their own places but aren’t allowed to impede or to distract the argument of the whole. For a first book to contain poems like these, fully accomplished and mature pieces, is surprising enough; for a young poet to know how to make them work in a larger constellation is even more remarkable.
Originally published in the March/April 1993 issue of Boston Review