Carl Phillips and the Post-Epic: Thoughts on Double Shadow

Andrew David King
October 31, 2013
Comments 1

If someone asked me to guess what it might be like to read the translated papyri of a failed, pre-modern dystopia, I’d tell them to read Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow. These poems have the elliptical terseness of Aesop, the sexual sophistication of Sappho, the epic circularity of Homer. Hyperbole, maybe: they’re as formally different from these Greek progenitors—with the exception of Sappho (taking note of how Anne Carson represents her in If Not, Winter)—as can be imagined. And though neither presumptive nor pretentious, they still attain (I hesitate to say “strive for,” since these pieces stand slack as statues, as monuments) grandiosity—a smart and sober grandiosity that achieves self-effacement and circumspect optimism at once, each tendency acting as a condition for the other. And this “self-effacement” is evidenced by material modifications to the poems as well as by the unrushed, almost-visionary narrator who lives inside them: the collection is populated with ellipses, dashes, italics pointing to the interjection of unattributed speech, and lopsided, asymmetrical arrangements that give its lines the quality of having been reassembled from ruins.

It would be too simple, though, to read these relics as evidence solely of decay. To refer to these features of Double Shadow’s materiality in terms only of a mimesis of the past as it appears to us now (and, through this, a mimesis of the past’s disintegration) is to miss out on a different aesthetic claim the collection seems to make—a different, and braver, aim it undertakes. For despite this disintegration, the speaker of these poems stays remarkably consistent: he or she worries about an identifiable set of concerns—the attainment of pleasure, time, history, permanence, fear, the tokens of what seem like meaning sprinkled throughout the animal world—and approaches them with a familiar set of procedures.

Prominent among these procedures is the tendency to juxtapose loose ends of thought in unresolved, unresolvable dialectics, which bring out not just the irreducibility of their components but the frustration provoked by acknowledging them, by trying to situate one’s understanding of causality—why the past happened the way it did; what the future, because of this, will look like—in terms of the past and present available to us now. Double Shadow proceeds, purposely or despite itself, as the psychological diary of a speaker whose voice stands as the axis around which the poems’ propositions radiate like branching outlines of roads on a map. But this speaker is also absent, inasmuch as invisibility can be understood to entail absence; the poems testify to this narrator’s engagement with the world, but we learn hardly anything about this person or entity—he or she remains, as so many authors do, anonymous, and this anonymity in turn produces a kind of omnipotence, or at least an impotence to fill in the details on our part. I couldn’t stop thinking, as I moved through Double Shadow, about the speaker’s preoccupation with the surfaces of the world, an attention so overwhelming as to preclude this speaker from furnishing information that might have allowed me to become comfortable with the recitation of these surfaces. The erasure of the distinction between intimacy and alienation has the paradoxical consequence that the closer this speaker comes to articulating the phenomenology of his or her experience, the further away I feel from this person. I don’t know who they are; I don’t know who is speaking; the speaker impels trust by not asking for it, but this very modesty makes me doubtful.

True to the book’s dialectical obsession, time unfolds linearly and as a mosaic, an assembly of shards. The question of time is central for this speaker, whose preoccupation with determinism, freedom, and nature leads to the collection’s bluntest articulation of the limitations of past, present, and future:

What we cannot do

What we cannot undo

All the work we must do

There’s a suitable sleepiness to this triad of fragments—in the grammatical sense, but also in the archaeological sense—something unrushed and yet not apathetic about their delivery. The stanza resembles a museum exhibit whose labels have been stripped away, its specimens glimmering namelessly behind the glass. The poem in which these phrases appear, “Immaculate Each Leaf, and Every Flower,” frames the ends of the spectrum that Double Shadow sits astride; on the one hand, a baffled and apoplectic reception of nature—with all the passivity that implies—that barely admits of conversion into speech (“The gray of doves. The gray of doves, in shadow.”), and, on the other, small forays into the discourse of knowledge, of propositions (“As for ruin—yes, but faintly.”). “Immaculate Each Leaf, and Every Flower” begins with an idyllic, georgic title, but the comparisons made by the dialogue of its progressing stanzas soon become strident. The first two stanzas give a fair picture of this; they make explicit one of the book’s foremost anxieties:

And everywhere the smaller birds again noising, filling
steadily all the cracks between spells of rain…

*

As if song could still mean something useful.

“As if”: this is at once speculation and cynicism—or risk and faintheartedness, to borrow one of the book’s favored pairs. The “noising” of the birds (a stubbornly perfect verb) still reverberates even as the poem moves into statement, its own sort of noising.

*

Why did I say, earlier, that a description of the telegraphic, shattered moments of Double Shadow would be inadequate if it took itself to have finished its work in correlating such moments with ruins as such, with the edifices of the past? Because Double Shadow was published in 2011. Its speaker conducts several millennia of cognitive and linguistic development, literary experiment and exploration through the original circuit of his or her own mouth—we can cede this easily, and cede also that the past is present (I mean this literally, though the pun remains) in any new thing, no matter how sharply it bifurcates itself from its predecessors. But the book’s speaker resists this inevitability. “Show me a longing / that’s got no history to it,” says the speaker in “Glory On,” “that steep glide into / what it meant once…” The slick beauty of this imperative blinded me, at first, to its contradiction: to want, at once, to escape history, to surpass it, and also to return to “what it meant once”—to the non-alienness of the previously-known, the previously-encountered, that which is inseparable from history.

To be pulled in two (or more) temporal directions: this marks Double Shadow’s title as fitting in another way. And the idea of this tension, however pronounced or quiet, is announced in the book’s first poem, “First Night at Sea,” which seems to come to terms immediately—though this immediacy is, as I hope to show, deceptive, even self-deceiving—with history’s insatiable, insufferable repetition:

Like any other kingdom built of wickedness and
joy—cracked, anchorless, bit of ghost in the making,
only here for now. Blue for once not just as in
forgive, but blue as blue… [ellipsis in orig.]

Note the cliffhanging enjambment of the first line: wickedness and what? Could any other ingredient matter once wickedness is involved? Joy seems an unlikely candidate but follows anyway, made at least sonically independent from wickedness by the abruptness with which it appears; Phillips’s decision to end a line on “and”—especially the first line in a poem—is an interesting move in its own right. More importantly, with this poem, Double Shadow establishes its preoccupation with temporality, with temporariness: all kingdoms, it says, have “a bit of ghost in the making”; they are “only here for now,” this collection—an amalgamation of paper, ink, and glue—among them. “First Night at Sea” also marks the ocean as a motif central to the book. In the next poem, “Ransom,” we’re told of “[t]he sea, as in / that underworld that mostly the mind resembles,” a line that recalls the second stanza of Dickinson’s #632:

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

In #596, Dickinson’s speaker remembers the death of a woman that occurred when she was young and the more recent death of her only son: “That Woman and her Boy,” she says, “Pass back and forth, before my Brain / As even in the sky—”. But what is the significance of these appearances of the sea, the “blue” of the sky, and the mind? In #632, the brain is “deeper than the sea”; in “Ransom,” the mind resembles the “underworld” that the sea is instead of exceeding it. In either case, the parallel between the mind and the ocean suggests that each, despite their sizable material differences, mimics the other: each is amorphous, fluid; each is a container that can provide nourishment or in which one can drown. The epigraph to Double Shadow is from James Schulyer’s “The Crystal Lithium,” and is reproduced as

“Look,” the ocean said (it was tumbled, like our sheets), “look in my eyes”

The line is Schulyer’s, but the sentiment is Phillips’s, and his poems’. They demand directness and specificity even as they fall prey to discursiveness. Their speakers—or their speaker, if we’ll adopt the singular—lose track of their thoughts, digress, and reminisce, but always begin again, even after having considered antinomy after threatening antinomy. “Continuous Until We Stop” describes “that moment” when “the body surrenders to risk”—a curious construction, raising the question of whether or not the body (and there is a question, of course, about whether or not the body is the “self) can “surrender” to risk:

when an unwillingness to refuse can seem

no different from an inability to,
though they are not the same—inability,
unwillingness. To have said otherwise
doesn’t make it true, or even make it count
as true. Yes, but what does the truth
matter now, I whispered…

What saves the italicized speech from being classed as straight melodrama (is there such a thing?) is its mythical, surreal quality, achieved somehow despite its placement as an interruption in a makeshift logical proof about the limits of the will. If it is true that “a forced decision / is not a true one” (“On Horseback”), then it seems that so long as one is a determinist, no “true” decisions are possible: truth and falsity are null values tacked on posteriorly to mechanical interactions over which we have no control. And if “[t]o have said otherwise / doesn’t make it true,” then linguistic artifacts—creative acts, words, songs—can merely decorate and not alter the world. Returning to that double-edged fragment from “Immaculate Each Leaf, and Every Flower” (“As if song could still mean something useful”), I can’t help but fixate on the word “mean”: what does it mean for song to mean something useful and not be something useful—or offer something useful, or give voice to something useful? Maybe meaning and use, insofar as we understand the latter as utility value and the former as something not convertible into the vocabulary of such values, are incompatible. A weaker reading might argue that whatever use we “get out of” a poem comes from its meaning, in which case the speaker’s dissatisfaction is that song no longer means something “useful,” whereas previously, by its strength—in some temporal “before”—it could.

*

Some examples of the language of transition, of instability.

“Comes the Fall”:

…the land falling away as the sea opens
out again into a loneliness that, often enough,

freedom also means—doesn’t it?

“Sacrifice is a Different Animal Altogether”:

How the sailor can become
the ocean he’d meant only, he thought, to sail across.

“Heaven and Earth”:

…someone
else out there, singing? or myself singing,
and the echoing after?

 “Roses”:

…Where the land ends no differently
than it’s ever had to, in a blue of sea…

“Night”:

…that slow dissolve
into nothingness to which nevertheless there’s
a music that lingers still…

“My Bluest Shirt”:

 Now I touch at once both everything and nothing.

“Civilization”:

…How
the rain means
April and an ongoingness like
that of song until at last

it ends.

Until it ends—I mean to gather a few examples here, not create an inventory; Double Shadow is so dedicated to the investigation of duality that I might have reproduced the whole book. The environment and its perceivers swap places; we begin to imagine “the world as body” (“Night”) even though we know “[t]he deaths are random,” that the inexhaustibly complex operations of cause and effect nonetheless look to us like chance. And though in nature there “is nothing / of ritual, only repetition,” no pomp, only set practices, our speaker continues speaking, enacting and fighting history at once.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi's 1756 etching of the tomb of Nero

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s 1756 etching of the tomb of Nero

*

“After Winning the West” opens with an acknowledgment of determinism:

They were what they’d always been—
perhaps inevitably.

Perhaps, though the speaker has already thought of the mind as “caught critiquing its finally less than pure reason” (“Night”), casting doubt on just the sort of critical agency that Kant wanted to preserve for humanity. (In “Night,” too, the speaker imagines God “clutching tightly / to his chest the snake” of Eden, now forgiven—a revision of the foundational legend of Genesis. And in “Dark Angel,” the speaker converses with a supernatural harbinger whose genitals, strangely, are visible, in an image not dissimilar to that which appears in an untitled poem by Yehuda Amichai: the “Angel of Death, crotch gaping male and female / like a bloody sun in the thick of frizzled black death,” he writes.)

But the speaker’s initial claim, that things are “perhaps inevitably” what they had always been, is inverted not long after. He turns to “archers on the wall / of an Etruscan tomb, aiming / at nothing,” each sitting atop an animal that, in time, has been worn away save for its hooves. (“Inevitability” also appears in the book’s final poem, “Cathedral.”) When redemption is “a matter of duration mostly” (“Night”), the fantasy of resilience must be maintained even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary: why not imagine, the speaker proposes, that the hooves “stand”—a not-so-quiet pun, there—for “discipline, / the stillness of it, just before / leaving the hard ground far behind?” The West was won; but like any other kingdom, as “First Night at Sea” reminds us, it’s prone to dissolution, to deterioration. The response, it seems, is to hold fast and move forward nonetheless, an answer that calls into question whether or not the West, inasmuch as it represents a victory of Enlightenment or utopianism, can be “won”: we’re always on our way to winning it, always floundering to hold onto it once it’s in our hands.

*

There are a number of “sonnets”—I use this term with some trepidation, as I’m not sure the proclivity, among some poetic critics, to call any fourteen-line poem a sonnet is a legitimate one—in Double Shadow: “The Heat of the Sun,” “After the Thunder, Before the Rain,” “The Shore,” “Master and Slave,” “Almost Tenderly,” “Tell Me a Story” (these last two have visible voltas at their seventh and eighth lines, respectively), “Glory On.” I don’t know what to say about the presence, however wraithlike or subdued, of received forms in these poems; their formal qualities seem largely incidental, not integral, which itself might be a subversion of the sonnet: whereas in its most traditional incarnation the sonnet was very much an apparatus, a machine, to which thought conformed, these poems force the form of the sonnet to bend to their thoughts. The volta of “Almost Tenderly” breaks across the dialogue of the singing sea; the volta of “Tell Me a Story” comes right after the first instance of “I” in the poem. Neither marks any “turn” in the customary sense.

Instead of being important in its own right, as something natural and expected, form—and its decay—becomes something of a performance, involuntary or voluntary, for the speaker of Double Shadow. And this is the crux of why positing ruination as just a feature of this text, one produced in it by processes as deterministic and fated as those it examines, is somehow unsatisfactory: all of this apparent degeneration, this crumbling, imagistic as well as structural, is brought into being intentionally by the speaker. No material text has actually “decayed” and left behind damaged proof of its existence. The peculiarity and attraction of these poems is that they mean—perhaps more than they mean to—their disarray; they refer not to wholes but to the rough membranes of thinking out of which wholes are conceived. They are echo chambers for overlapping errata of speech. The sort of citationality and intertextuality at work in The Waste Land is also at work here, making neighbors out of disparate ponderings. This type of modern poem engraves the signage of the ruin on its exterior but also erases it by depriving it of the very aspect that seems most crucial to it: its antiquity. The resultant affect is not unlike that evoked by the photographer Camilo Vergara’s proposal, as recounted in John C. Teaford’s The Metropolitan Revolution, that a handful of vacated city blocks in Detroit be left standing as an “American Acropolis.” Anachronisms like these prompt us to ask just where, exactly, “the past” starts.

“What experience and history teach is this—that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” This is Hegel, in the introduction to his 1832 Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Of course, this is not the only thing that experience and history teaches, if it teaches anything—and I don’t mean, either, to reduce Hegel’s philosophy to an aphorism—but this idea is one that Double Shadow latches onto, with its circular lilt, its prismic and refractive music, all environed by that brand of skepticism that keeps its eyes open despite its discontentment.

The dialectics played out in Double Shadow hint toward those “genuine intellectual knots” posed by meaningful problems of philosophy: as Benson Mates says in Skeptical Essays, these problems “are intelligible enough, but at the same time they are absolutely insoluble.” The collection’s speaker never seems to attain ataraxia, a “suspension of judgment” that results in “a highly desirable state of blessed imperturbability…” (Mates again). But this speaker nonetheless resists nihilism; even as his or her voice trails off, the possibility of other existences, other worlds, and other lives remains real, as in “Sky Coming Forward”:

To forget—
then remember… What if, between this one and the one
we hoped for, there’s a third life, taking its own
slow, dreamlike hold, even now—blooming, in spite of us?

It may be true, as Alan D. Hodder and Robert E. Meagher wrote in their introduction to The Epic Voice (2002), that by the Renaissance “epic had eclipsed even tragedy in importance, thus assuming the most exalted station in Western theories of literary art.” But it seems that in the case of Phillips’s volume the tragic has reasserted itself to stand on the same level, again, as the epic, leaving the two not so easily divisible; is the above speculation wistful or dismal? In “The Shore,” too, we hear of a “they” who kept whispering

You’re a memory                You’re
the future              You’re a memory

A memory—the indefinite character of this specification robs memory of the power accorded to it by Augustine in his Confessions, that which serves as the basis for so much of one’s own idea of one’s life, one’s mind. On the other hand, the speaker, ostensibly the “you” addressed, might also be the future: the singular shape of things to come, all-encompassing but, necessarily, also obliterating. This voice hovers between the two, unable or unwilling to decide, documenting the contours of subjectivity with the hope of finding a solution among them.

One thought on “Carl Phillips and the Post-Epic: Thoughts on Double Shadow

  1. The latent content apparently is essential to the poet in an endeavour to resolve an issue with with mortification rendering the content open to a shared but subjective speculation.

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