Carl Phillips has long been feted as a subtle and dexterous technician. In a New Yorker review, Dan Chiasson pushes Phillips forward as a ‘candidate for the author of the most interesting contemporary English sentences’. A Phillips poem may consist of anything between 10 and 15 lines, each part of one or two long sentences. Such sentences may lead to what Chiasson has also suggested is the sense of arrival in Phillips’ work, as opposed to a sense of conclusion. This sense of process as against narrative may force the reader of Phillips’ poems to a feeling of wallowing, a kind of waiting within the poem. And it is testament to Phillips’ astonishing skill, that this waiting never feels strained.
A tension, however, pervades this sense of waiting. There is often, in this volume more than Phillips’ other books, a feeling of ‘a disturbance in the force’. Phillips’ poems adumbrate a feeling that wholeness is out there, but it lies slightly out of reach. The opening and title poem of his new book begins, ‘All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin/ with patience. I have practiced patience.’ But the ‘cruelty’ which the poem appears to focus on, is laid underneath ‘elegance’ and ‘patience’ which is repeated and emphasised with the second simple sentence. And we note the title of both poem and the book. Not only does the wholeness that is out there appear to be slightly beyond reach, but it has to be circled around anyway.
Thus, the book seems to begin with a statement from the authorising consciousness of the book. But Phillips has always been one to dramatise the ‘I’ in his poems. Sometimes the poems seem to circle round that ‘I’, as in ‘The Greatest Colours for the emptiest parts of the world’: ‘Sure, I used to say his name like a truth that, just/ by saying it aloud, I could make it true, which makes no more sense than having called it sorrow,’. By using the words ‘say’ and ‘call’, Phillips brings ‘truth’ onto the surface of the poems. That dramatizing movement is, I would suggest part of Phillips’ nature as a metaphysical poet. A metaphysics which not only explores the personal nature of truth, love, … cruelty, but shows how such notions are entwined with both the erotic and the nature around us.
Phillips’ previous books have always contained poems which are shot through with a very powerful attachment to the natural world. Often that world is a world of plants and Phillips is a wonderfully delicate writer about flowers, but not only flowers. Patience reoccurs in this book in the poem, ‘Lowish hum, cool fuss’ (what a brilliant title by the way!): ‘Like hawks tipping, fluttering, over likely ruin -/ how what looks to patience isn’t patience/ at all, more like hunger and instinct squaring/ off before joining forces’. Of course, this might just be riffing off Ted Hughes, and I’d bet that Hughes is a poet that Phillips has read and re-read. In this poem, Phillips pulls that image of the hawk into a sense of innocence, which has its own perils, ‘But why can’t innocence/ be instead a boat, slowly coming about, set free/ by accident, beneath it the rocks against which/ sturdier craft, I know, have shattered?’
There is, ultimately, a slight sense of Phillip’s treading water with this book. Reconnaissance doesn’t quite have the plangent power of his Griffin prize nominated Silverchest. In part, this book doesn’t quite reach the level of that book’s effortless melding of the metaphysical, the erotic and the natural world. After twelve books in twenty years that is, perhaps, only natural. As with all Phillip’s poetry, however, his writing is ever haunting; poems to revisit for the way they engage the nature of being with an effortless, timeless elegance.