It most often seems to me that English is not a particularly beautiful language, but Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s poetry argues eloquently against that. His ear for the language, sound and syntax, is inherited through Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, clowningly playful while serious, repetitive while new, grounded in the city as well as a sheep meadow though highly philosophical and airy as a snow angel. His first book, The Ground (FS&G 2012), is a book of beginnings with the knowledge of difficult endings. Like incarnation with the knowledge of the crucifixion, this phoenix empowered by the fire of the word has not forgotten his ashes. His ground is not only the ground we walk on and grow in, but also the ground we are buried in and ultimately, the ground zero of 9/11, as well as a greater, metaphysical “Ground Zero” which is the place of our beginning and end. A ground adjacent to paradise. Many of the poems in his first collection feature the speaker coming face to face with a sky or oceanic expanse, a characteristic abyss, but not menacing. The poet here is in awe at a kind of majesty and possibility despite the vast stretch of limited knowledge and ultimate unknowing.

Phillips’s second collection, Heaven, ambitiously builds on that first collection’s recognition of the expanse: heaven and its mysteries. What could be more ambitious than naming the afterlife and bringing into measured lines the eternal? This book unveils a fascination with mirrors: mirrors mirroring themselves, twins, Narcissus and his pond, Apollo and Jupiter, Rowan considering Rowan, poetry considering its poem, rooster and rooster, a last line of the second poem early in the book mirrored with the penultimate poem’s title near the end and, ultimately, world and world, heaven and Heaven. There are even two poems titled, “Mirror for the Mirror” which are, of course, mirror images of each other. The idea that the mirror illuminates so successfully in these poems is that no image in the mirror is ever a perfect repetition of its body. Any attempt to identify and name heaven in this fallen world is going to fall far short. Nevertheless, in poem after poem, Phillips attempts the impossible. We know that the vehicle of the metaphor is never exactly the tenor (not even in the case of “a rose is a rose”) and this is the pleasure of poetry: variations in repetition and renaming.

Heaven in the poems is considered in its multiplicity: the sky, the paradise of both Eden and the afterlife, the pagan Empyrean, the underworld, a dream-like vision, the imagination (see Wallace Stevens), a lovers’ apartment’s eighth floor open window, our solar system, universe, and beyond. In the poem, “Mirror for the Mirror” (the first one) the words “is” and “as” face each other in their separation (one of many lovely enjambments), and the poet is struck by their similarities and differences, situated as two states of the self:

Otherwise, it would always be what it
Was in sheerest separation of is
And as: self separated from self, self
Unparadised, as though there were a place
Somewhere at the end of an endless bridge,
A continent of light, called Paradise.

Phillips is describing a heaven here, the night sky, the heavens seemingly “unparadised”. But the dark cannot remain so in the revolutions of time (the sun will rise) or, especially, beyond it (the afterlife). One might think of MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” which states that “a poem should not mean / but be.” In the lines of Phillips’s poem, the passive verb, “is”, immediately falls into a limited past (“was”) while “as” is conditional, which Phillips illustrates exactly one line later: “as though there were a place”. The “as” moves us metaphysically beyond space and time, into Paradise.  Here and in the second “Mirror for the Mirror”, Phillips reaches beyond MacLeish’s dictum into the possibilities of imagination. Not “be” or “is”, but “as”.

Heaven, much like Phillips’s previous collection, is rich in literary allusion, featuring a cast of characters and voices from Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and Wallace Stevens. Stevens is the major influence, and Phillips is not shy to let us know it again and again: from individual phrasings (“but / merest meaning” or “the hilly Ohio highway” or “Benedict Robinson, text me, if you know”) to titles (“The Once and Future King of Ohio” or “Grande Poeme Pathétique”) to wholesale imitation (“The Beatitudes of Malibu”—instead of an orgy of Druids we get a drunkenly raving Mel Gibson!). Stevens, Phillips greatest strength, may also be his greatest weakness. But when Phillips strides into his own rhythms and visions, as in “The Once and Future King of Ohio” (note the last, sublime perspective of this poem taking place in a rear view mirror), I think he is one of the best young poets I’ve read in years.

Many of the poems in Heaven take place in a world of snow and ice, and Phillips’s “mind of winter” is well-suited for the subject of heaven. As in the previous book where the abyss was never something to despair of, here the winter is never infernal. It is a place of meditation and almost always opening into the otherworldly, a realm whose landscape maybe only poetry or music can give us.

John Poch

John Poch’s forthcoming book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize.  He directs the creative writing program at Texas Tech University.

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Contributor’s Marginalia: Kjerstin Kauffman on “Eve of the Ascent” by Katy Didden

There’s a moment in “Eve of the Ascent” when the speaker’s thoughts move from Dante’s Purgatory to what’s immediate and in front of her: “Behind gnarly junipers our white tent flaps / in wind that would lift it a mile over the valley / had we not weighed it down with heavy stones.”

It’s a moment that took my breath away. I recognized the associative link between purgatorial soul and white tent, and perhaps also the biblical idea of tent as Tabernacle, the temporary dwelling place of the Most Holy. The poem moves gracefully between high and low registers, inviting us, without ostentation, to think of the speaker’s hiking trip in light of sacred text and epic tradition. But what I thought of first was Frost’s silken tent:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Didden’s “heavy stones” are Frost’s “countless silken ties of love and thought,” the earthly concerns against which the creative spirit strains, the counterbalance to the upward impulse. But where a silken tie is easily unfastened, a stone suggests permanence—millstone, boundary stone, gravestone. And where Frost’s tent seems almost an entity of its own, Didden’s is the object of collective responsibility. We weighed it down by heavy stones. We kept our temporary home intact. We had to, or it would have disappeared.

We is so important for this poem. Fellow hikers, warned of the dangers by guides. The speaker’s “demons / . . . friends I’ve lost to wordless anger.” Other “night-hikers” heading up the Dome. Carol, Carol’s Granny Ray. Michael Wilson. Dante and his penitent souls. Didden speaks eloquently here of the self’s conflicting interests, of—to borrow Larkin’s phrase—the “blent air in which all our compulsions meet.” But hers is no lone tent, decorative, in an empty field. Hers is a self enacted and understood within community—narrowly speaking, the community of friends hiking together, broadly speaking, the community of poets past and present the speaker has connected with through art.

Didden’s poem does, remarkably, achieve ascent, from the “demons” early in the poem to the shudder of mortal consciousness in the middle, to the final “laugh so hard / we cannot breathe.” Frost ends “Silken Tent” on the idea of bondage, but Didden ends “Eve” in a place of unexpected freedom. The “what if” of “what’s after this” is answered, not with a theology of the afterlife, not even, exactly, with the magnificent “nowness” of her experience halfway up the Dome, but with the presence of the people around her.  The presiding feeling, in spite of any threat, is a vast, magnetic joy.  In the capriciousness of summer air—or of fate—there’s a miracle. The miracle is friends.

Kjerstin Anne Kauffman teaches literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her MFA in 2014. Her poems are forthcoming in Unsplendid and Mezzo Cammin, and her third child was born December.

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Hesitation and the Poetic Metaphor

February 15, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Brianna Noll on “The Cloudmaker’s Key” by Kai Carlson Wee There’s something about a metaphor, a good metaphor, that hooks me every time. I think it’s because in a metaphor, we see the writer’s artistry: a certain conception of reality is reframed by unbridled imagination. Faces in a crowded station become “petals on a wet, […]

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Prose Feature: A Review of Peter Kline’s DEVIANTS (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013), by Casey Thayer

February 13, 2015

While considering the literary quality of rap lyrics in a review of Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry, Adam Newey writes, “You could argue that the whole direction of 20th-century poetry was towards weeding out poetry that was ‘poetic.’” One imagines Newey pointing to the abdication of the ruling iambic line, the renunciation of sestinas and pantoums […]

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Hog in Sloth, Fox in Stealth, Wolf in Greediness, Dog in Madness, Lion in Prey

February 9, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Amit Majmudar on “Work Experience” by Lance Larsen In poetry’s mutual-backscratching world, everybody knows everybody else; so you’d do well to bet that my picking Lance Larsen’s “Work Experience” to recommend to you on this blog might well relate to some longstanding friendship, email correspondence, or Facebook friend-status. You’d be wrong. I’d never read his […]

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