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The Untempered Clavier of Carl Phillips

The Rest of Love by Carl Phillips. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004. 70 pages. $20.

There have always been poets—all right, there have always been a few poets—who, as was said of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, could produce examples of their art as effortlessly as an apple tree produces apples. There have likewise always been many more who approached the writing of verse with reluctance, sensing perhaps that for them, no courting of the muse could be effected without laborious introductions endlessly renewed. Finally, there’s the vast majority of others who, though aspiring to the vatic, cannot boast of their facility in a single language—let alone several—the consequence being that they rear a Vatican of their own devising on no more than a wing and the (annually repeated) prayer so that their failure to stand out from among other multiply-laurelled poets like themselves will not put the kibosh on their chances to earn this year’s top awards. Not a few within this third group, it should be pointed out, consistently publish work of such appalling mediocrity that comparisons between their warblings and the restless ditties of wannabes seeking bread from circuses like The American Idol seem almost unavoidable.

Carl Phillips, now crowing atop his seventh book of verse The Rest of Love, falls into this latter category not for want of effort or out of a lack of literary IQ, but because he is devoid of the least equipment without which hanging out a shingle as poet seems an impertinence if not an act of genuine fraudulence. The irrepressible pop-ups of nescience with which his verse abounds are themselves a strong indicator that more than the poetic equivalent of hospital corners is amiss. Stammering lapses in assertiveness would be bad enough in a collection two or three times as bulky as this; with the pickings as slim as they are in The Rest of Love, size not only becomes a matter of consequence, it matters more sizably than usual, given the extent to which the shrunken and piddling contribute to the volume. Certainly, when it comes to displaying a penchant for hyperboles wrenched out of shape, or eschewing the relevance of things in as many throwaway words, few thumb their nose at sense with all opposables flailing as athletically as the end-meister who fired off Cortège and The Tether as successive blanks. It is no good pointing to subject matter as the reason for stuttering having replaced statement in this poet’s verse. Only an unprincipled apologist could claim the historic undeclarability of the love Phillips rhapsodizes as sufficient cause for the declarative being hog-tied the way it so often is in the present collection. For proof of this, one need look no further than The Rest of Love’s title poem. Not only does it render all charges of “imitative fallacy” supererogatory, it shoots itself, along with just about everything else usefully poetical, in the foot. In fact, it is difficult to identify a single passage where it so much as casts an eye on, let alone adjusts its sights to, any elevation afforded by prosody:[private]

The hive is for where
the honey was.
Was findable there,

then not.
Sometimes, I think I dreamed it,
or I am saying it like a thing

that I would do,
when I would never,
and calling it art: . . .

While none dare call this art, the dissembling of artlessness (read: “honesty and candor”) that lies all over this kind of “poem” like a cheap suit might in some alternative universe qualify as artful were its terza not so blatantly stripped of reason as well as rima. As it is, vigor gives way to rigor and the whole desperate project collapses into the stumblebum subjunctivizing that characterizes most of this poet’s runnings off at the mouth. Not even the near-sympathetic clanking of there against where in the first stanza is denied its clout of irrelevancy; and any second thoughts that the reader might be having about whether rima was really being put through the grinder as much as appeared are quickly extinguished by the certainty (no longer creeping but racing ahead) that reason was being dealt as mortal a blow in this war of words against themselves as poor poetry.

But lamentably, there is more, though to be sure in most of The Rest of Love more is indeed less. As unpalatable as the slaughter of innocent rime in Phillips are his square-peg hammerings of the obvious into ever deeper and rounder holes, as, for example, in the poem “Singing.” This disingenuously nominalized tract enacts what its title advertises even less credibly than Prufrock lives up to its billing as a “love song.” But that’s small potatoes compared to the meatlessness afflicting this anorexic meal-on-wheels. Here the reader as well as poetry is reduced to poverty when having to decide at around the half-way mark whether to hang in or bail out, and whether choosing to wring or not wring philosophical nest-eggs from cuckoos is the poet’s problem or his. Sample nest-egg: Does it matter that God is the ostensible Referent (and Antagonist) in this poem, even though he (God, not Phillips) rates no more than a lower case pronomial? Or that he (or is it He?) speaks mostly in italics (for catholic emphasis, perhaps)? Knowing more or less Phillips’s take on the carnal, one is tempted to conclude: probably not. But who can say, there being so little that isn’t up for claim jumping of one sort or another in The Rest of Love? Entering into familiar relations with this poet’s work involves more than just circumventing the unease we feel in being nudged from bore-hole to bore-hole in poem after poem. The cruel and unusual punishment kicks in when, having survived the mole’s tour of the tunnel vision museum, we are forced to distinguish within this poem’s or that’s visible darkness the screwdriver from the screw:

It’s a dream I’ve had
twice now: God is real, as
the difference between
having squandered faith and having lost it
is real. He’s straightforward:

when he says Look at me when I’m speaking,
it means he’s speaking. . . .

As though we really needed to see them, Phillips constantly waves his academic credentials in our face, as though every parsing of a pedantic point offered upon the altar of difference somehow required that not just the splitting of hairs but the splitting of follicles. And all in the service of birthing paradoxes as loony in the arsical mooning of fact as ever was the brainbuster by Zeno on the theme of diminishing returns. Just as in that pinning of empiricism to the logical mat known as “Achilles and the Tortoise” the fraction of sense grows smaller and smaller with the receding of the target of purpose ever further toward the unreachable, so Phillips’s reader cannot help but be caught up, like the defendant in Kafka’s Der Prozess, in a return of the repressed whose issue can only spell diminishment for all. So far so wunderbar, you might think, but thinking too soon is like expecting the history of the spacebar to show up on a computer screen on the basis of nothing more than its having been inscribed on the body of the space bar itself. (Or is that schematic too Kafka-esque even for this discussion?)

But we’re still not quite done with Phillips’s approach to poetry and the law of diminishing returns. What harebrained notion, the reader of a poem like “Singing” must wonder, could possibly vex an Achilles so far behind the curve that any protraction of loopiness (whether it be the curve’s own or his) signals a setback as unalterable as the vicious circle whose mist-laden circumference keeps the arc he is hopelessly chasing from ever pulling free of its own cloud bank. It’s like the law Phillips hints at regarding the inexorable truth of anything dreamed more than once: God is real not because He can actualize his own probability curve as a gay calculus, but because He’s straightforward, which, though not exactly the same as straight, exceeds the limitations of that orientation through the always eastward pointing of time’s arrow. If this appears reminiscent of the H. D.-ean proclivities of Robert Duncan, the mind can play tricks that should be cruised with all due caution, if at all. Even at their best, Phillips’s arrogations from the erotic hymnal succeed in retracing the virtuosities achieved by that particular form’s modern master, Duncan, only dimly. In poems like “North” (to cite but one of several), the object of the hommage is unconscionably left out on a limb, unsupported by root or branch:

Earthstar,
seastar—
more dark than either—he mistakes me.

Lies beneath me.
Has arched already himself up in
such a way.

He is
—what? an instance of glory
outglorying the bearer of it?
Token when it conquers
that for which it stood?

Those who give without receipt,
without even the expectation of receipt—
I am not among them.

As if having spoken, and
now could watch the words find, spatter-like, his chest,
a brightness that
depends finally,
any shield,

—a wall across which, random, off of water, light
shifts,
reflected. . . .

The meandering aimlessness of this lamely unaccentuated verse to one side, what masquerades here as “content” at no time rises to the level, either literal or metaphorical, of anything resembling an “argument.” By the same token, no poetic ear with even a pennywhistle’s claim to accuracy of pitch could endure a line like “Has arched already himself up in” without cringing to within a hair of his own spinal cord. When it came to scaling walls merely attempted by poets essaying the homoerotic in poetry, Duncan routinely negotiated them with such agility and grace that his reader, whether in sync with Duncan’s enterprise or not, found himself as breathlessly “amazd” by the agon on the page as the poet-conjurer himself at having so ably dreamt his trick into words:

. . .
A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns
the tips of their bodies, lips,
ends of fingers, nipples. He is not wingd.
His thighs are flesh, are clouds
lit by the sun in its going down,
hot luminescence at the loins of the visible. . . .

Which is why any poet with an eye to assuming Duncan’s mantle must bring more to his table of contents than an outed candor and spry one-upmanship in laying claim to every male property with an “open house” sign above its frontal expanse. When the poet who wrote “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” troubled to lift his leg, it was in order to execute a dance, not to rear a balancing act as much beyond his end as his means. When Duncan gigue-ed his Pindaric jig, the turn and counterturn were such that the stand which brought them to a halt was not something odious (in all the wrong senses), but a stepping forth, gimplessly articulated and balletically superb in every way—in short, the very antithesis of what fails to gel in the hapless excerpt that appears below:

. . .
What if the will
were husk entirely,
and the husk,
breakable
were broken open, to
where the seeds are? What
then? What would the seeds
be?

A cathedral, falling.

One of those doves that, in the Greek original, the sufferer’s bow
brings down.

O him, beneath me.

Were rank truly an antonym of rankness in the world of contemporary poetry, that last line could appropriately stand as that master’s judgment on the travesty just quoted—though one quails at the prospect of having to speculate what a probationer of fierce desire like Duncan might or might not have suffered to lie beneath him.

Moving right along, how, if in a much different vein, account for the ghostly presence of not just the late Eliot but the very worst and latest Eliot stalking The Rest of Love like mauvaise foi from the Confidential Clerk pulling a Banquo on the Elder Statesman?

A stillness like that of music, resting—or sex,
after: what they call sadness, though it
is not sadness.

***

As if everything were in the effect, finally.
Less the wind itself, than a quickness,
or lack of it, with which the gulls, lifting,

move forward, or how the trees, here at
shoreline, recall or don’t the startled angle
of retreat-before-temptation that is fixed, . . .

Equally embarrassing are the not infrequent descents into Rilkean pastiche (as in the collection’s very first poem “Custom”), which not only ignore the changes on angelic dread rung by the Austrian poet but fasten on The Duino Elegies’s schrecklich as though its object were not the awfulness of God, but rather the godawful, pure and simple.

The talkiness owes as little to echt Rilke as the irony-salted confidentiality does to the silver-tongued argot that is Richard Howard’s familiar trademark. Yet, the “Enough about you, let’s talk about me” piledriving into the ground of readerly equanimity is not just Phillips, but Phillips all but entire. Only in the small of “Custom”’s backhandedness—and a limp backhandedness it is—do the poet’s personal qualities at all rise to the occasion. (Mostly what rises in a Phillips poem—and not just occasionally—are the gorges and hackles of readers stuck with deciphering its author’s banter with the void). Least luminous, however, are those passages (such as may be found in “Like Stitches, Where the Moths have Made An Opening”) where with much ado over the reluctance of certain spirits to be summoned, the shade of Duncan is conjured amid a sputter of melisma and only the barest trace of that butterfly monarch’s rachetings of the ineffable:

One keeps returning to the echoes ricocheting around and through Phillips’s verse because there is so little else in a book like The Rest of Love to keep one from fixing upon them. Falling into that class of poetic egotists who have as little of pressing interest to confide to themselves as they do to anyone else who might be eavesdropping on their vacuous pronunciamentos, Phillips relies on random sound effects to distract attention from the ground endlessly being lost by the little engine that couldn’t. Back when outed gay poets weren’t a dime a dozen, the sehnsucht of male sex on the hoof had a cachet born of the hold that virtually any variety of kinkiness could exert on Americans starved for whatever could exceed the plotless dropkicking of boobs with big dicks on spreadeagled hookers baring it all before hand-held cameras equipped with grainy Super-8 lenses. Today, that hold has relaxed itself to the point where raves conferred on gay rant have come to seem as boring as heterosexual breast-beating to all but the fans of generic porn favored by hormone-oppressed middle-schoolers. Of course the operative term here is generic. None beyond the ranks of neocon fanatics any longer object to original and truly creative portrayals of gay themes and experiences; only the repetitive plowing of furrows long fallen to depression and sagginess remain a sure-fire turnoff among the well intentioned. Rank-closing morale boosting might still appeal to the incompletely liberated or deeply closeted homosexual, but for any reader not similarly inclined, getting dragged along for the ride is a distinct turn-off, no matter how racy the negotiated turns.

That said, one important thing should be got straight: There are no more “homosexual poets” as such writing in America or anywhere else in the first world. That soubriquet was long ago stonewalled into obsolescence by various gay rights movements, Log Cabinists, and the rapid atomization of what was in more closeted times the Mattachine Society. Today, we have poets who happen to be homosexuals, and that is seen as no more toward or untoward a fact than the turn-around truism that there are poets writing today who happen to be heterosexuals. Accepting this without bells and whistles prevents the devil that might otherwise be in the details of homoeroticism as a lifestyle from infiltrating the broader conspectus of expressibilities rendered insufficiently moot by motif, theme, or problems of identity. Homosexuality as it subtends the concerns of a John Ashbery is nearly incommensurable with that version which, for example, flaunts itself, legs akimbo, in the bravado-laced bulletins from the gay bar front filed by the late Thom Gunn; or that elevated to the very peaks of the rhapsodic in the lambent anthems bequeathed us by Robert Duncan. Phillips seems intent on making the reader accept gayness (presumably because he himself does) as the synthetic a priori of the generic life mis à nu. And as if there weren’t enough cant already clinging to such a screed, he seems unable to resist crashing the slumber party his own dogmatism has rendered superfluous.

Putting the best possible face on Phillips’s poetic intentions, they can be seen as an attempt to bring to the re-inner-ing of outedness a shirtless and come-as-you-are frankness. In his hands, the varieties of homosexual experience take on a Jamesian (William, not Henry) air of conversional décolletage. To be sure, a few coyly angled perspectives assumed by him acquire a certain depth of field, but little comes of the increased surveillance because his shutter speed is too slow. Ashbery’s infinitely more implicative and enticing rhythms being out of his range, Phillips forgoes the dissimulative machinations of verse as a simulacrum of cruising almost altogether. His poems are chamber operas whose sole subject is letting it all hang out, but lacking a diva’s weight to assure their resonance and heft, they founder for lack of stage presence to bring them alive. The Rest of Love might pullulate with personal relevance but it is just plain incapable of thinking or feeling engagingly outside the box of its own narcissism. It takes more than a word mechanic with a love of open spaces to bring a project like Phillips’s off with alacrity, and here the poet, straining every muscle to make the transubstantiation of sweat into sublime music a factum est, simply cannot summon the stuff to bring off such a miracle.

What—one can already hear the email juggernaut roaring into gear—? Can CPR possibly be broadcasting the suggestion that Carl Phillips, hugely respected as both a poet and a professor of literature, has not only produced verse with, quite literally, bupkes to say but lacks as well the minimal chops to dress his poems technically in even motley recognizable as his own? Could a regular reviewer on its staff be daring to claim that a book like The Rest of Love has nothing, not a solitary thing, to commend it? Surely not. Surely not that.

Well, rest easy. It’s not that—or at least not exactly that. Being an extensively published poet—and critic—Phillips has been around the block enough times not to indulge in the sort of amateurish errors tyros are known for, regardless of how many creative writing courses they’ve taken in however many prestigious institutions of higher learning that have deemed them superior catches. Phillips’s problem is one shared by any poet who is not at the top of his or her division, and it is that which arises out of the absence in his or her work of anything approximating a musical ear, compounded by a blindness to what the noted translator of Heraclitus, Philip Wheelwright, once termed “plurisignation.” Put less opaquely, the term denotes a sensitivity to how the meanings of words spill willy-nilly into adjacent zones of meaning created by other words. Of course there are things to be found in The Rest of Love that would not compromise all of one’s critical standards were one to stoop to praise them. But what is missing from this poet’s work cannot in the main be compensated for by some piddling coup brought off in one poem or even in several. I’m talking about a deficiency that is for all intents and purposes autochthonous to what Guy Davenport metaphorically nails as the “geography of the imagination,” and there is simply no wishing it away. For if these lines (from Catherine Bowman’s 1000 Lines, chosen at random from The Best American Poetry 2003)—

Ten notes. Two pentatonics. The blues scale
in the key of E: the City’s secret
hymn sewn into cement knot work, sky work—
ten years, what can I remember of it?
Avenues, wind, salt-glazed estuary—
frieze panels: stone work of new-born blossoms,
tabernacles and cusped arches: brickwork
robed in saffron, Wednesday evening picnics,
asiago, fumé blanc in paper
cups. River talced with curatives of light: . .

—are poetry, and I definitely believe they are, then what category could fitly accommodate this excerpt from “In Stone,” just as randomly culled from The Rest of Love:

Their clothes; their rings as well, until
at last they wore nothing. All was visible:
flourish; humiliation; some things,
more than others, looking almost the same.
As if Not only torn but lavish let be
the angle all tearing starts at,
as if this were the rule, each
splitting open around, unfolding
from—so as, incidentally, to expose—
its wet center. The kind of sweetness that
carries a room, but there
was no room. How at first a sweetness;
how, by turns, a gift, a darkness. . . ?

Anyone who claims not to be able to detect a significant difference between these two passages of verse should, in my view, recuse him- or herself forever from considerations of what does or does not constitute poetry. Those interested in further teasing out the line of gay verse beginning in America with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and culminating in Duncan’s Bending of the Bow might wish to take up the triumphant new collection School of the Arts, by the author of Atlantis and Source, Mark Doty. Doty’s particular gift is to point Duncan’s singing line toward tighter, less Blakean congruences. He attempts to reconvene gay converse at the point where Thom Gunn left it at the time of death—a zone of erotic transitiveness but scantily hinted at by Hart Crane in his last fragmentary poems. Exhibit A: the revelatory “Meditation: ‘The Night of Time,’” from School of the Arts:

Though it’s tempting to cite of Doty’s three-page rhapsody on gay bar balletics, “Double Embrace,” in its entirety, a few select doublets should suffice to drive home the case this review has been making all along.

. . .
The bar’s a cave of minor

miracle played out—
it’s not sex I want, if what sex is

is coming; more than that,
search and pleasure, reading,

divining signals, shift of attention,
flare in my direction, pose,

tattooed arms gleaming, hips
cocked in their particular invitation.

Particular! We’re almost generalized
here, local avatars

of a broader principle,
we are just now representative men

doing the men’s work
—fierce vulnerability—

open and containing, open
and held, the forward momentum

ceased, swaying a little, a few minutes,
before the triangle breaks apart.

belly hard in the small of my back,
kiss to the back of my neck,

and I lean forward to kiss
the neck before me.

One could continue this game of A-or-B-ing ad infinitum, but the chances of its changing a single mind would remain small. Those determined to inflate Phillips’s tonedeaf maunderings into something this side of the rosetta stone will no doubt do so no matter who pricks their bubble, while the same hardheadedness will be found among those for whom the description “zircons in the rough” is too kind. Again, there is no proposition on the table that virtually any piece of poetry by virtually any contemporary poet is superior to the contents of The Rest of Love or those of other volumes of Phillips’s verse. What is being insisted upon, however, is that even the best efforts of this poet, when cited alongside poems from the best anthologies currently in print—anthologies, I need hardly point out, filled with poems by Phillips’s own peers—appear awkwardly contrived, clumsily articulated, and ham-handedly stranded in aesthetically unappealing culs de sac. Though it seems scandalous to say, much of this poet’s writing fails to meet even the minimal criteria good or even above average prose is expected to meet. Often when reading Phillips’s poetry aloud, one feels one’s tongue contorting itself into knots and one’s brain reduced to utter befuddlement. No matter how hard one tries, one simply can’t make the blunt objects battering at his attention cohere semantically into alpha waves of emotional sense. And while no one expects poets to adhere strictly to those stringencies of moralistic reason once imposed by Yvor Winters and his cult, neither should one have to stumble over language with the clubfooted temerity to call itself verse while achieving no greater similitude to poetry than hours spent listening to John Cage at his “prepared piano.”[/private]

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- who has written 19 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.

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