Prose Feature: A Review of Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s HEAVEN (FS&G, 2015), by John Poch

February 27, 2015

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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