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Working Time: Essays on Poetry, Culture, and Travel


Jane Miller

The University of Michigan Press, $11.95 (paper)

by Robin Becker

"Poetry is multiplicity -- it documents and changes, like a great love affair, those who participate." In Working Time, experimental poet Jane Miller turns experimental essayist, employing a "multiplicity" of approaches in these 13 original and provocative pieces, three of which were first published in American Poetry Review. Just as she believes that poetry must "recombine to accommodate the stretches of journalism, collage, and surreal imagery that have become commonplace in the language," so must the essay become an elastic vehicle. Her voice is by turns personal, intellectual, historical; thus, the leaps in her prose suggest those in the contemporary poetry (poetries) for which she makes strong claims.

The central problem for contemporary artists, as Miller sees it, is to "reconcile the postmodern sense of the `world as process' (John Cage) and the modernist sense of fixed, stopped time." Miller looks at sculpture, painting, T.V., cinema, and video to examine strategies for grappling with duration, sequence, simultaneity. She is interested in an art that "expands to include memories, digressions, and coincidences," a "language that retains its restless, paradoxical way of making meaning/meanings." In an essay entitled "Marble," for example, Miller works her way from a discussion of Michelangelo's Slaves in the Academia in Florence to an exploration of "addition and subtraction" in the poetry of Brenda Hillman. Using apt examples from several poems, Miller argues that Hillman employs narrative in combination with disjunction, that she allows metaphor to "eat into the action" and creates a poem without "the language of vague and weighty proscription." Miller's search for reciprocal relationships among the visual, plastic, and literary arts leads her to make persuasive connections. In the poetry of Frank Bidart, she discovers the drama of cinema, performance, and theater successfully transformed. In Jorie Graham's work, she finds the raw materials of Jackson Pollock's abstract painting "breaking the picture into voice."

Those familiar with Jane Miller's poetry will not be surprised to find an essay called "Madonna," opening with Miller's cultural critique of the pop figure's appeal and significance. In poems, Miller often juxtaposes "high" and "low" (diction, imagery, referent), revealing what happens when each exerts pressure on the other. Madonna, Miller believes, "works the Dionysian line," playing with archetypal Christian myth, reclaiming and reconstituting Woman as well as Marilyn Monroe. The essay moves on to address advertising, photography, and the "transaction between the personal and the mythic." Finally Miller turns our attention to poet Eduardo Galeano's line, "They shot him a final time, with flashbulbs," from his poem "The Fall of Ché" in Century of the Wind (Pantheon, 1988). Miller finds in the pun a potent surprise "that thrusts disparate events together, pointing up their tragic, irreconcilable opposition." She attributes the concision of the line to Galeano's years in journalism and she yokes together the earlier discussion of film and iconography with Galeano himself, who, as historian/poet, "tests the values of culture." Miller celebrates those cross-over individuals who, in the marketplace as "journalists, producers, inventors, and so on...keep these poetic tools in the system." The "system" here is the generative world of mass culture which, in Miller's view, "pumps its stuff from the same image-pool." Poetry, however, is language "embodied," a world in which "nouns must retain the vitality of blood being pumped to the head." Then, she finds, poetry comes from the whole being and becomes "the soul voiced."

Jane Miller's task -- articulating a contemporary poetics -- involves a radical questioning. Here she is on Realism: "Our realism has become permeated with nostalgia and sentimentality, reducing strong feelings to illustrations." On description: "Of what use is description, of what use is it to name what already exists?" On narrative: "...viable storytelling must contend with time laterally or it falsifies the activity of memory, which interrupts, compounds, compresses." On postmodern poetry: "These poems, in their effort to include everything, can sound like a continuously talking present, not accountable to the past or receptive to the future, in that they reject time." While Miller is a staunch supporter of the experimental, she wants poetry to be accountable to its present moment. In a lively paragraph from "Suspension Bridge," she evokes the Elizabethan world in which the "Aristotelian ground was heard through the metrical foot." By contrast she offers the following on free verse: "In our own time poets of free verse have come far from limping iamb, making variously elastic the poetic line as it represents the relation between our lengthening life span and the endangered global space." Of her own lived experience in time, Miller speaks of "...arhythmia, here at a limp, there at a mad dash, now again at a broken frolic." It is Miller's exploration of the "resistance of the poetic text" that gives Working Time its power. She manages to meditate, narrate, describe, and define, letting the fractured pieces refract a 21st century light on poetry, places, and "the communal mind." 

Family Night


Maria Flook

Pantheon, $21.00

by Suzanne Berne

In a recent essay, novelist Edna O'Brien describes rereading Chekhov and Joyce, and suddenly understanding that "above all else," their books "address the spiritual gnaw within the reader." She goes on to charge that "this is a consideration lamentably absent from most fiction today." What Ms. O'Brien craves most in literature, what she claims she misses most from contemporary fiction, "is the spiritual thrust, the moment or sequence of moments that shifts the boundaries to something larger, familiar and also startling"(New York Times Book Review, 2/14/93).

She's talking, of course, about transcendence, the moment when a story or book unexpectedly transforms a simple situation -- two lovers meeting at a hotel, a dull dinner party, a boy's frustrated attempt to buy a trinket for a girl -- into a complex, precise, yet expansive glimpse into the mysterious operation of life itself. At such moments, we readers intuitively recognize a truth we couldn't have put into words ourselves. The result is a peculiar, fleeting sense of being more keenly alive than before, and gratitude for having our undefined fears or desires articulated, even if what we behold horrifies us.

For readers who agree with Edna O'Brien, what too often replaces transcendence in contemporary fiction seems to be deflation: if characters strain to reach beyond the limitations of their own lives, they are usually rewarded with a smaller, more dismal life than before -- and no one is especially wiser for the experience. Family Night, poet Maria Flook's first novel, makes this point rather painfully.

Triangles are always interesting, and the one Ms. Flook draws here offers sharp, unusual angles. She is especially adroit at depicting the tentative glue that adheres "broken families" into new, complicated alliances. Margaret, a single mother and recent divorcée and "the youngest of an awkward ensemble of stepbrothers and stepsisters, absent mothers and fathers," has just started living with Tracy, also divorced and a member of "Sex Anonymous," when her stepbrother, Cam, stops on his way to Wilmington, and asks Margaret to come home to help him through his divorce. Kinky Tracy, who is "always scouting, hoping to enrich his encyclopedic awareness of fixations," quickly discovers that Cam is obsessed with his missing father (a former model and male escort) and proposes they all go to Chicago to search for him.

A traditional "family" this is not, and the nonconformity grows more intriguing as Ms. Flook carefully sketches Margaret and Cam's strong sexual attraction, then brings Tracy to Wilmington to disrupt the unstable balance they have so far maintained. A self-described "Blitz hound," who will drive miles to watch buildings demolished, Tracy enjoys destruction, sexual or otherwise, particularly when he locates a hairline fracture he can tease into a fissure. He soon discovers the faultlines between Margaret and her reckless, brooding stepbrother: both have a lost parent -- Cam, his father; Margaret, her mother -- and neither have recovered. Related not by blood but by a fraternal sense of loss, they have grown up more intimately than most siblings, not trusting attachments to anyone else in their tangled family.

But Margaret is also powerfully drawn to Tracy, whose conviction that "sex had no meaning beyond...its physical manifestation" excites her, perhaps because their relationship can thus be clearly defined. Put these three lost children into a small car and send them on a two-day road trip to search for a "model" father, and you have enough tension to detonate Long Island.

When the bomb goes off, however, the explosion is curiously muted. As expected, Margaret, Tracy, and Cam involve themselves in a disturbing ménage à trois. Margaret becomes increasingly passive as the two men abuse, goad, and seduce each other into behaving more and more irresponsibly, from speeding to stealing tires to voyeurism. Cam briefly returns to Wilmington to kidnap his young son, leaving Tracy and Margaret with a stepsister they've stopped to visit, who watches while Tracy half-forces, half-coaxes Margaret to have sex with him. They locate Cam's father, who turns out to be vain and shallow, a mannequin of a parent; then the ever-scheming Tracy, taking advantage of Cam's subsequent drunken despair, pushes Cam into Margaret's arms, accomplishing what both have desired and feared from the beginning. At last, emotionally exhausted, Margaret tries to escape from brother to lover. But it's only when Tracy threatens Margaret's life for his own sexual gratification that the ride is really over.

What Margaret gleans from this high pitch of event is oddly low-key. On returning to Wilmington with Cam and her nephew, she has a quiet revelation in the driveway: "She was suddenly weighted with the knowledge that all of experience must be memorized. She would always have to recall the truth and also what the truth summoned, what the truth seeded in her imagination. There's just no end to it." What truth, though? After riding along for close to three hundred pages of supposedly meaningless sex, callousness, and plain old cruelty from the men she loves, what does Margaret feel she has learned? According to her own revelation, she hasn't learned anything; to "memorize" experience is to attempt to retain what cannot be grasped.

If we are looking for real consequences from this quest for paternity, Ms. Flook disappoints us. Cam returns easily to his job managing an apartment complex, from which he snitched money to finance the trip to Chicago; his wife decides not to prosecute him for kidnapping their child or hijacking her car. Margaret prepares to return home, resolved only to kick Tracy out of her apartment, which Cam encourages her to do by piling his belongings onto the sidewalk and chaining the door. Even their own relationship seems hardly altered. As Cam says, "The beat goes on."

Perhaps it's true that consequences have become clichéd because, in fiction at least, we always expect them. But we expect consequences because they carry the weight of the writer's moral vision. In confronting the consequences of his own actions, the character is revealed, the conflict defined, the "spiritual gnaw" recognized. Otherwise all we are left with is action, and in this case, the action alone doesn't tell us enough. Are we really to believe that all the irresponsibility displayed by these characters results from the break up of "family," and that they are therefore unaccountable for the damage they do to each other and everyone else? If Family Night constructs such an intricate framework of human desires and longings only to provide a glimpse of inconsequence, like Tracy's trivial attitude toward sex, then deflation is unfortunately the most we can hope for.

The Colors of Heaven


Edited by Trevor Carolan

Vintage, $11.00

by Leonard Casper

Asian nations bordering the Pacific usually are mentioned only in connection with their lustrous "tiger economies" or the ruinous fallout risked on the volcanic "rim of fire." The title given the 19 stories collected and edited by Trevor Carolan may seem to suggest an alternative view -- that of romantic tales in search of a musical score by successors of Rodgers and Hammerstein. These stories are far too scrupulously realistic for that; and yet they do manage a tentative faith in the possibility of humanity in an age of slaughter. The resilience of so many characters, in the midst of ominous mishap, signifies an amazing courage.

Revealing that these people possess a hidden strength probably goes beyond the more immediate motive of Canadian-born Carolan. His stated intention is not to offer models for admiration but merely to open more windows of awareness, in the West, onto the cultures of Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. (For good measure Australia and New Zealand are included.) While statistics can review impersonally the economic rigor and collective political importance of this rapidly developing arc of Asia, fiction provides a human dramatization of just how daily life on that north-south dateline is endured and transformed. Story after story in this collection is peopled by individuals shaped by forces directed toward collision but diverted toward coalescence.

Post-colonialism in Southeast Asia and sweeping postwar changes in Japan and Korea have liberated energies which now can be used by entire populations to choose between conflicting heritages, such as Western materialism, the mitigation of poverty by people power, and spiritual transcendence. Within cultures-in-transit they can perceive stages of selfhood assembled in the space between total conformity and extremes of vanity. Their implicit demand is for respect beyond toleration, and the sharing of constructive power at all socioeconomic and political levels. The intensity of the energy released rises also from the sound of once-censored voices. Many of these stories are by women, no longer insignificant citizens in male-centered societies. Others are from voices long muted by power-protective national politics. Some are even the sound of speech still stifled and therefore concealed by ironic satire or wry humor, an underground literature of protest bulging beneath simple surfaces.

In Nhat Tien's "In the Footsteps of Water Buffalo," for example, two elderly Vietnamese offer to substitute themselves for a dying draft animal at the communal plow. Dangers of institutionalized matchmaking are lampooned in Catherine Lim's "The English Language Teacher's Secret," just as the tribulations of Gerson Poyk's principal character, in "Matias Akankari," make a mockery of civilized custom when the tribal youth from the hinterland encounters Jakarta. Conversely, an Australian aborigine's profound affinity with nature is treated with culturally sensitive levity, in B. Wongar's "The Family."

In other stories, the stress inherent in sociopolitical change cannot be laughed away so easily. The expense of survival is great. In Zhu Lin's "The Festival of Graves," an aging mother who dedicated her life to the duties of her commune yearns for her daughter's love and respect, without wholly comprehending their absence. The resettlement of the Korean family in O Chong-Hui's "Chinatown" means an advance in status but also a rediscovery of what being a stranger means. Similarly, the mix of new opportunities with a sense of dislocation is experienced by the characters in Yoshiko Shibaki's "Snow Flurry," as they become enmeshed in postwar urbanization.

Far more desperate are the lives in other stories. Jose Dalisay's "Heartland" reveals a military doctor's revulsion at orders to revive a young guerrilla so that information can be retrieved from his broken body. The young man in Kon Krailet's "In the Mirror" suffers even greater disgust when poverty turns him to "paid-for" sexual acts in a nightclub. In K.S. Maniam's "Mola," a country girl, trying to escape the constant monitoring of her behavior by family members, becomes a city bride, only to find that she must fight her business-obsessed husband for even the most elementary identity and esteem.

Yet even such stories of desperation escape being parables of futility or despair. The characters' resurgent will to aspire beyond inner contradictions or to confront such destabilizing conditions as impoverishment or displacement signifies a refusal to be overwhelmed. Disorder becomes an opportunity for rearranging one's life. In Kuniko Mukoda's "Doubt," an aging son persists in attempts to recover his integrity at his father's funeral. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim's "Mr. Tang's Girls" exposes not only the psychological battering of women forced into polygamy but their subsequent revenge as well.

Often these stories end unresolved, as if they are chapters in novels only contemplated, rather than in-progress. Told in the subjunctive mode (if only...), they are miniature semblances of entire Asian histories of this century, in which lives seem suspended -- but not lost.

Mogador: The Names of the Air


Alberto Ruy Sanchez,
translated by Mark Schafer

City Lights Books, $7.95

by William Holinger

Mogador is a prize-winning novella that explores the aesthetics of desire. In this short novel, desire is beautiful, fantastic, and omnipresent, and although the extreme longing of the protagonist, a young woman named Fatma, remains largely unfulfilled, one hesitates to leave the world of the book even for a moment because being in that world is such a rich, sensuous experience.

Mogador, an enchanted (and imaginary) city on an island in the warm waters off the coast of Morocco, is surrounded by a white wall. It is said that sailors approach this gleaming city with joy, "thinking that she is like the moon, that she lies in the water and calls to them." Approaching sailors may hear Mogador before they see it, however, for the very sounds of the city produce a haunting song:

Crowning each of the six hundred and sixty-six towers on the wall, a hollow, stone dragon turns in the wind like a weather vane, takes in the sounds of the city through a funnel between its hind legs and hurls them out its throat, transformed into a complex arabesque song, which they say causes those who hear it for the first time to weep with emotion.

At the heart of Mogador lies the Hammam, a public bath with fountains and many rooms, dedicated to the sensuous indulgence of the body. The Hammam is open only to women until midday, and thereafter only to men. It is a place out of time, a place where the prohibitions of all religions are suspended and where myth, imagination, and living flesh intermingle:

Certain rooms in the Hammam have walls of stone covered by erotic scenes that were not painted by human hands. They say the walls were originally blank, but over the years have absorbed the obscene forms that pass through the minds of those frequenting the Hammam. However, there are also those who think that in fact the walls themselves desire. That their surface is a kind of fresco of a mind on which are drawn the longings of a supernatural being...living in the Hammam, overexcited by the bodies that offer themselves to its waters.

Mogador concerns Fatma's quest to fulfill her sudden desire, an overwhelming feeling, a "prolonged anticipation." She eventually finds fulfillment in the Hammam, but only briefly; as her grandmother has predicted, she is unable to recognize love for what it is until too late. In that sense the novella is an Arabic "Beast in the Jungle," but there is nothing else in it that remotely resembles anything out of Henry James. Mogador, which won the 1987 Villaruttia Prize for Best Mexican Novel, is strikingly informed by various Arabic cultures at the same time that it combines aspects of Mexican poetry with elements of magical realism. Like its author, Mexican poet Alberto Ruy Sanchez, it is as culturally heterogeneous as most American nations. The translation, by Mark Schafer, is superb.

I must mention one potential reservation. A writer friend once told me that she never reads novels written by a man from a woman's point of view. "I'd like to hear more about what's on men's minds," she said. "I'm not interested in what men project onto women." In that vein it could be argued that Ruy Sanchez has projected onto a female character his own erotic fantasies -- his version of how women desire -- and thus that the book, a mere male sexual fantasy, is false and irrelevant.

Fortunately, this narrow view of the work doesn't hold up, partly because Mogador contains several devastating criticisms of the notion that men are superior to women, an idea that has often led to the virtual as well as the literal enslavement of women by men.

One such criticism is conveyed by an anecdote about a merchant who deals in female slaves and comes to a gruesome end. Another criticism is played out in a subplot involving Fatma. Late in the novel, a young fisherman named Mohammed takes a strong liking to her. "How I would like to see your shoes placed under my bed every night," he tells her. But Fatma emphatically rejects this version of enslavement (marriage):

She felt this to be more offensive than the time the other fisherman had tried to touch her in the street. Rather than pawing her, this man wished to anchor her beside him, to wrap her up forever....

He preferred to believe...that by including a woman in his plans, he was saving her from some extreme danger and so she would always owe him her life -- every corner of her life.

Thus Ruy Sanchez balances a double paradox: his novella about female desire, written by a man, criticizes Islamic and Latin-American concepts of male dominance. It's a dazzling philosophical conundrum -- a Sphinx-like riddle that only a king or a poet could solve.

In any event, the pervasive desire in Mogador is particularized: it's the calling out of one body to another, one spirit to another, one soul to another. Fatma's desire is not random, but focused: she knows all along that only one particular person can satisfy her. This infatuating novella is not about eroticism; it's about love.

Good Hope Road


Stuart Dischell

Viking, $20.00

by David St. John

For those us who have long admired Stuart Dischell's poetry, the publication of Good Hope Road, his first book-length collection (chosen by Tom Lux as a selection in The National Poetry Series) is a cause for real celebration. In a time when much of our poetry seems to spring full-blown from the self-congratulatory and self-absorbed confessions of tell-all talk shows or, at the other extreme, from the most airless and bloodless pages of literary theory, a book like Good Hope Road arrives like a tonic, filled as it is with carefully crafted poems reflecting the complex conditions of human experience and emotion.

The first section of Good Hope Road, entitled "Apartments," is comprised of twelve poems which form a loose but harmonic sequence. Each of the poems has a protagonist referred to as "he" or "she." We soon discover, however, that those pronouns are refracted over time, situation, and age to reveal disparate aspects of those seemingly anonymous selves. In each of the poems from this sequence, the "he" or "she" emerges as a singular figure, a true character in all senses of the word, caught in the particular (and often peculiar) purgatory of his or her own life, even a little stunned at times by the nature of their own special states of limbo. Slowly, around each of these anonymous pronouns, the details of experience and the reflective movements of narrative quietly coalesce, until we are left with a portrait that is rich, moving, and surprising.

Dischell is superb at showing us the poignant secrets behind the masks of these pronouns. His characters, often trapped in the paradoxical fluctuations of their own thoughts, are driven both from and into their own solitude by their awkwardness, their self-consciousness, and the persistence of their desires. As they stumble and stutter across the world's stage, used by others, confronted by daily indignities and cruelties, often crippled by their own passions and personal histories, Dischell's figures reveal to us how much we are like the anonymous "he" and "she" of these poems. Yet, what strikes me as highly unusual is that Dischell is unwilling to make any special or arrogant claims for the idea of the self. Instead, we find the absurdity and presumptions of selfhood mocked everywhere, as in the marvelously witty poem "Buddies," with its two friends who are both named Jerry and who tell each other's stories as if they were their own. One of the buddies tells his wife, "Our lives are a joke, and we Jerrys are its comedians."

It's difficult to convey the subtle eccentricities of these poems. There is a generosity and expansiveness to Stuart Dischell's vision of "the human comedy" (as William Saroyan called it) that allows us, as readers, to recognize and forgive the foibles of his characters -- and our own as well. It's hard work being a serious comedian of the human spirit, but Dischell never lets us down. Listen to the opening of the poem, "Plans":
She plans to be a writer one day and live in the City of Paris,
Where she will describe the sun as it rises over Buttes-Chaumont.
"Today the dawn began in small pieces, sharp wedges of light
Broke through the clouds." She plans to write better than this
And is critic enough to know "sharp wedges" sound like cheese.

Dischell is also tremendously deft in his handling of tone. His poems are both colloquial and measured, as if we were at a bar listening to a slightly overeducated mechanic telling us what is, after all, a very tender story. The limpid ease of these poems often masks the truly complex and conflicted states of mind of their subjects. Here, for example, is the conclusion of the marvelous poem, "Wishes":
She wishes she were older
Or younger, wishes the sky were a little calmer,
That it wouldn't rain on her driving errands,
That she wasn't so late for her appointment,
That the car's problem was really only the cables,
That it could be summer faster, that what she had been
Waiting for all her life would finally begin to happen,
That she would know it when it was happening.
And that when it happened it would not disappoint her, ever.

In the book's second section, entitled "Household Gods," Stuart Dischell carefully trains his lens on somewhat more personalized vistas. The poems here reflect episodes of familial and domestic transformation and loss. There is a startling innocence in many of these poems, a refusal to move towards the kind of conventional cynicism that we expect to be associated with these subjects. To my mind, it is a refusal that necessitates great courage and an enormous capacity for forgiveness. The section also includes two remarkable dramatic monologues, "The Message" and "The Chamber." In each of these powerful poems, we discover that their lucid and self-isolating speakers have willfully removed themselves from the world, that is, from our world. These are truly chilling poems.

Whether charting the youthful indulgence of self-dramatization and self-display, coupled with the difficult process of growing into "oneself," as in the superb poem "Mirrors and Shadows," or instead celebrating the peculiar resolve and need to move that we like to think of as being especially American, as in the title poem, "Good Hope Road," Stuart Dischell reminds us of our need to give ourselves a break. As that poem suggests, we might even join him along those journeys our lives make, however comic their few triumphs and however self-deluded their dreams. Still, Dischell knows, the steady engine of our silly and marvelous lives remains our own willingness to entertain those same lasting dreams, those few sustaining hopes:
Nevertheless, having said what I have said
About where I have been, strap on my back
or steering wheel in my hands, in the not
Yet risen dawn of another earthbound day,
I will set out again down that same road,
My hope companionable among the
travels. 


In the Blood


Carl Phillips

Northeastern University Press, $9.95 (paper)

by Stephen Tapscott

According to his theory of the "Strong Poet," which Harold Bloom has been refining for almost 20 years now, the dynamic by which a young poet works toward definition and self-ratification is essentially an Oedipal process. The "younger" poet -- often male, as the Freudian pattern seems to assume -- considers his place in relation to the Fathers and then struggles to declare his independence, his autonomy, the authority of his own voice in relation to that (potentially overwhelming) tradition. The theory seems to be more popular among critics -- many of whom don't read poetry, at least not contemporary poems by poets other than the Fathers -- than it is among working writers. It's a shock, therefore, to read the opening movement of Carl Phillips's elegant, urbane, meditative first book, In the Blood. Throughout the first phases of the book's argument, Phillips seems to locate himself squarely within the Bloomian paradigm. He opens his poem "Passing": "When the Famous Black Poet speaks, I understand//that his is the same unnervingly slow/rambling method of getting from A to B...." It sounds as if Phillips's argument is going to be literary, an encounter with the poetic tradition of the Fathers. But then Phillips completes his sentence -- and his stanza. What he recognizes is the same method "that I hated in my father,/my father who always told me/don't shuffle." Something wonderful, indirect, and sly just happened: with his implacable equanimity, Phillips begins what sounds like a literary argument, implicitly invoking Freudian thematics of literary influence, and then makes it matter in a strongly personal way, realizing the truth of the "Oedipal" metaphors and yet making it his own, bearing tribute to the fathers' advice even as he resists it. Thus the poem works an argument about inheritance and heritage, about the personal in the context of the traditional, about sexuality as the vehicle of self-realization at the same time it is, paradoxically, the agent of continuity between generations. This "tradition" (of poets, of African-American men, of American masculinity) is a line of continuous resistance, a chain of ruptures, a celebration of what is not there to be celebrated, what makes itself felt by its absence:
I have spent years tugging
between my legs,
and proved nothing, really.

I wake to the sheets I kicked aside,
and examine where they've failed to mend
their own creases, resembling some silken
obstruction, something pulled
from my father's chest, a bad heart, a lung,

the lung of the Famous Black Poet
saying nothing I want to understand.

This example is a small one, and not particularly the most beautiful moment of a finely-realized poem. Still, it is representative of the ways many of these fine, careful poems work: in their attention to the truth of longing and to the side-long glances of affection toward what is withheld, hidden, inarticulate (exactly because it is withheld, unarticulated); in their candor; in their rhythm of slow meditations carried somehow in short lines; in their good humor and their willingness finally, to forgive, but sideways.

Phillips's book is scrupulously organized, so finely-tuned that at first one sees the rippling surface elegance more than the intellectual scaffolding. That's as it should be. Eventually one recognizes the skeleton of a careful argument about desire and internalization, about life in the body, embedded in the sequence of these poems: the eroticism (homo-erotic in this case, without political agenda) and narratives of betrayal and abandonment by individual men in section two segue into the poems of prayer and divine longing of the next sections -- as if Phillips were tartly reversing Emily Dickinson's terms, "Parting is all we know of heaven/and all we need of hell."

The cumulative surprise in rereading the whole collection is Phillips's uncanny confidence, underlying the apparent diffidence and meditative slowness and accuracy. He seems to be discovering the inventive connections of the poems in the last half of the book, and yet in retrospect one sees how sure his footing is, and how carefully, with what reticence, he has led, not followed, his argument. The book contains individual poems of great beauty (my favorites include "Undressing for Li Po," "Leda, After the Swan," "Death of the Sibyl," "The man we're looking for," the sequence "In the Blood") which claim their own places but aren't allowed to impede or to distract the argument of the whole. For a first book to contain poems like these, fully accomplished and mature pieces, is surprising enough; for a young poet to know how to make them work in a larger constellation is even more remarkable.


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