Carl Phillips | Star Map with Action Figures | Sibling Rivalry Press, $12.00; Pale Colours in a Tall Field, FSG, $23.00

At a recent reading, Carl Phillips suggested that Star Map with Action Figures was like an EP; a selection of poems that wouldn’t really fit on an LP length book such as Pale Colours in a Tall Field. There is an abstract quality to the poems in Star Map which sometimes feels as if it lacks the physical precision and empathy with and knowledge of the natural world which threads through Pale Colours. It’s not that the poems in Star Map are any the less emotionally and intellectually precise than the ones in Pale Colours. It’s just that the poems in the pamphlet are perhaps more cerebral, an exploration of what it means to think things through. In the full length book, we are treated to that connection between inner nature and outer nature; a connection which is, perhaps, shown in the very title itself, Pale Colours in a Tall Field. Those ‘pale’ colours are part of a ‘colour field’, but they are also present in a field that contains sycamores, silverrod, tickseed and pear trees, and, as often in Phillips, horses both grazing and running.

In Phillip’s book of essays, The Art of Daring, he comments:

     The irresolvability of an abstraction like power, combined with the very real,
     human impulse to give shapelessness a form, is the catalyst for the particular
     field of inquiry that we call art – in this case, poetry – and the inquiry is an
     ongoing one, across history, because the “problem” being investigated resists
     solution, and yet we as humans can’t resist trying to find solutions.

The Art of Daring is not simply a kind of manifesto for the ‘recklessness’ that it espouses as a subtitle, and neither is it only a map around Phillips’ own poetry. What Phillips does is to look at the way energy, perhaps shapelessness, manifests itself in poets such as Hart Crane and Shelley, poets for whom we might assume that Phillips has some natural sympathy. Phillips also writes about a poet like Lorine Niedecker, a poet whose name and poetics we might not immediately connect with Phillips’s charge and drive. That sense of giving ‘shapelessness a form’, of channelling energy so that it becomes approachable but never domesticated, permeates much of Phillips’ poetry even where it commemorates loss, as Phillips sees in some of Niedecker’s poems.

All the Love you’ve Got’ from Star Map shows that sense of form in all its presence. In the poem, Phillips imagines that ‘the king has stepped / from the royal tent, is walking toward the sound / of water, where the river must be … Beside the river, / two men are fucking.’ What the king notices is that ‘the men bring a somehow grace / to the business between them.’ Although it is not clear that the lines that follow are the interior reflections of the king, their semblance to free indirect speech means that the words seem to emerge from the king, himself. Thus, the men’s fucking has a kind of music, ‘It’s as if / they’re singing a song that might go, “I’m the king, no you’re / the king and I’m the river, no you’re the river.” On and on, like that. Leave them: they do // no harm.’ So the king who ‘knows mercy when he sees it’, witnesses the trading of power, in the form of love making. And the grace of the men’s actions shows the king how grace and mercy might lead to a tenderness that culminates in the final sentence of the poem, ‘How soft the stars look.’ If there is a solution to the particularities of power outlined in this poem, it is a solution which looks to grace and tenderness, but without sentimentality. By viewing the two men fucking through the lens of the mythical king, Phillips removes a possibly voyeuristic element to focus on the palpable, human tenderness that act has for him. As he writes at the beginning of the poem, this ‘means / being a stranger, at least outwardly, to even the least / trace of doubt’.

Perhaps, it is too easy to suggest that these poems are actually haunted by the political situation that Phillips finds himself in. If power is an irresolvable abstraction, then, as he notes, ‘we as humans can’t resist trying to find solutions.’ Part of Phillips’ technique is to watch how power manifests itself in animals. This manifestation is not only present in the horse mentioned earlier. However, Phillips certainly loves horse for the power they do manifest. This is not just a physical power. In the poem, ‘Tugging the Arrow out’, he writes,

There’s a nudging that a living horse
will sometimes extend toward a dead one,
  a nudging not so much against death – what is
knowable to a horse, but not understandable –
but against that space right before loneliness
  settles in for real that horses
do, it seems, understand.

A horse is a large and visible enough animal to observe this kind of psychology at play, perhaps. Perhaps, also, that size and visibility, their ubiquity for humans with whom they have a particular kind of relationship, shows that horse behaviour might be analogous to human behaviour. Loneliness, and the sheer isolation of the human condition are recurrences in Phillips’ poems. Thus, if even the admirable horse understands loneliness then the horse shows how humans need to acknowledge loneliness, too.

Phillips depicts the horse representing a kind of centred-ness in ‘Since when shall speak of it no more’; here, quoted whole.

– Clouds like the manes of stallions, the mane alive still
on the stallion’s ghost-body. As if the body had died, I mean,
and the mane forgotten to. Or been weirdly stranded. I’m
no one’s horse. I’m not what waves like a bit of ocean down
and to either side of its brindled neck. I’m not a thing I know.

Again, it is the dead horse which figures large in this text. The horse is clearly designated as male at the beginning of the poem, but central to this is that the horse has a primordial unity, the disintegration from which mirrors the narrator’s own disintegration. Not only is the mane somehow cloud-like, the horse’s body is a ghost of the former horse. In the midst of this, the narrator tells us that he is ‘no-one’s horse’; he is unpossessed either by another, or, it seems, even by himself. Although the imagery of the dead horse might seem unusual, the poem shows almost by not showing, that the horse had and has a coherence which the narrator does not, ‘I’m not a thing I know.’

In ‘Defiance’, Phillips comments that ‘Some say the point of war / is to make the need for tenderness // more clear.’ And Phillips uses the example of how, in the Iliad, ‘the horse’s head, // to protect it from combat, would be fitted / with a shaffron, a strip of steel, / sometimes mixed with copper, all of it // hammer-worked, parts detailed / in gold.’ What Phillips then goes on to explore is the way statements, particularly of love, may actually dissemble, not to trouble but to protect. And the poem ends with a kind of coda separated from the main body of the poem, ‘And turned to him. // And took his hand – the scarred one; I could / feel the scars … Little crowns. Mass // coronation. For by then all the lilies in the pond had opened.’

If Phillips is a metaphysical poet, his metaphysics actually never avoid the physical. That the horse, or two men fucking might encapsulate ideas of what is tender or how we are more or less a unity within ourselves seems like a statement of the obvious. Phillips’ particular triumph is to show how we need to suspend our judgement about not only these physical acts but also what they might suggest about the human condition. Phillips depictions of the human condition are formed under conditions of extraordinary acceptance. This is not indifference, but a deeply particularised compassion.


by Ian Pople

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