Carl Phillips, Wild is the Wind, FSG $23.00
‘Wild is the Wind’ is one of the great songs from the American Songbook. Originally recorded by Johnny Mathis for the film of the same name, it has picked up a range of interpreters from Nina Simone and David Bowie, to Bat For Lashes, Esperanza Spalding and Dame Shirley Bassey. Simone’s interpretation is one of the most haunting, if only because Nina Simone was a singer who inhabited a song. And Simone certainly inhabits the song’s slow cadences, which she underpins with her own ‘dramatic’ pianism. On Nina Simone’s album of the same name, ‘Wild is the Wind’ is followed by an equally dramatic, but far more minimalist version of ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’. Both versions are live performances. Carl Phillips’ title poem to his new collection genuflects to that version in its exploration of memory and loss, in a way which situates him not only in relation to Simone but also to the poetic tradition,
‘For the metaphysical poets, the problem
with weeping for what’s been lost is that tears
wash out memory and, by extension, what we’d hoped
to remember. If I refuse, increasingly, to explain, isn’t
explanation, at the end of the day, what the studier
truths resist? It’s been my experience that
tears are useless against all of the rest of it that, if I
could, I’d forget.
Whether the first person here is a persona adopted by Phillips, or the empirical Phillips, himself, is a moot point; Phillips’ taut and slightly driven syntax certainly feels personal. And what the poem offers is an exploration of a kind of truth. That Phillips is so successful in persuading the reader that she is reading truths is down to the precision and elegance of that syntax. The reader is taken in at the start of the sentence, the verse paragraph, the whole poem and then let go at the end. To read Carl Phillips is, as has been said by others, to be read by him. Phillips’ querulous, querying syntax seems to inhabit part of the human condition.
In his contribution to The Art of Series, The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, Phillips comments, ‘I believe reality can become distorted past recognition, and it’s in these moments that only something like daring, a willingness to risk going forward when we hardly know where we are, can provide us the chance both of self-knowledge and for the making of art. Restlessness carries us to penetration – we pierce the world as we knew it, the world as we’ve never known it pierces us, in turn, daring pushes past this… and then what?’
In suggesting that ‘reality can become distorted past recognition’, Phillips suggests that, firstly, we know what reality actually is, and secondly, as a consequence of that knowledge, we know that distortion is taking place at all. For Phillips, that distortion leads to ‘self-knowledge and the making of art’.
In a recent reading, Phillips commented that one of his friends had told him that he, Phillips, included ‘too much of the natural world’ in his poems. Wild is the Wind, as opposed to his previous Reconnaissance, certainly contains far less of the natural world; and leaves the natural world in order to more fully explore ‘self-knowledge’. Thus, it is perhaps slightly misleading to call Phillips a ‘metaphysical’ poet, as in this book, he is the poet of self-knowledge as emotional intelligence. Such intricate explorations of emotional intelligence drive his style, that lapidary syntax, which can run a single sentence through a single poem of fifteen long lines, such as ‘At Bay’ from Reconnaissance. The syntax is driven by the restlessness mentioned in the quotation above, and that restlessness driving to penetration occasions the further need for the intricate syntax. Thus the sentence structure is mimetic of that ‘pierc[ing] of the world as we knew it’, so that in turn, ‘the world as we’ve never known it pierces us’; all of this driven by the ‘daring’ Phillips so champions.
Phillip’s piercing emotional intelligence leads him to lay his own life on the line. And as a gay man, such an exploration becomes an Audenesque quest into the meaning of love, as in these lines from ‘Revolver’,
was a festival, within which – just as
tenderness is only sometimes
weakness, or how what we were
can become unrecognizable to what we are,
or think we are – leaves swam in the air.
The image of the face as festival and the leaves swimming in the air are repetitions from earlier in the poem. But inside that repetition is the turning of insight upon insight; a double folding in order to unfold. Phillips’ syntax here contains the turning of the mind upon itself, which might seem a kind of neurosis were it not that, as we have seen above, the reader both colludes in and recognises herself in this. The poet is reading the reader; reading the reader’s own inquiry into their own tendernesses, their own weaknesses.
The physical world is not quite absent from this book, although there isn’t quite the fluent movement from natural to metaphysical that there was in the previous book, Reconnaissance. ‘Before the Leave turn back’ begins,
Though I’ve shot the owl down, it hasn’t stopped its trembling,
so I have to still it. I cup my hand as for a shield, a sign-both-
until it looks like my idea, at least, of mercy beside the one
wing where I’ve broken it…
and the poem ends, ‘The only sound for miles is the sound of finishing.’
The shooting of an owl feels like an act of shocking violence, particularly when followed by the second half of that line; there are few better examples of Phillips’ skill than the sheer, physical revulsion that image provokes. And it might be, also, that Phillips’ further exploration of his own actions as ‘shield’ and ‘sign’ might seem an artistic special pleading too far. When Phillips comments ‘it looks like my idea, at least, of mercy’, he opens himself up to the criticism that this is no mercy at all. However, Phillips deepens the exploration of emotional intelligence with this laying of his own behaviour open. And that final line suggests the toll such actions ultimately exact.
Such laying bare, also, belies the comment that Phillips’ writing is cerebral, that he is, simply, a contemporary metaphysical. He is not a confessional poet, either, but seems extraordinarily equipped to understand what confession really entails. In a time of strong man politics and a world easing itself towards ecological catastrophe, Phillips involves us all in calm, mature and poised explorations of what love really means. His explorations of emotional intelligence in an age of chaos feel like a contemporary Four Quartets.