On Carl Phillips, Pt 1

Solmaz Sharif
October 31, 2013
Comments 1

As we continue to honor Carl Phillips here at Kenyon Review, I have asked some exciting young poets who count him as one of their great influences to write a few words in celebration. With an influence so large and deep–as a poet, a teacher, mentor, friend–this chorus felt only fitting. It will be presented in two parts. 

Carl by REG 1

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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Long before sitting on my thesis committee, Carl Phillips had become my teacher in the best way a poet can: through his words. Where it seems so many other contemporary poets have chosen cleverness, wit or simply irony as their primary lens of scrutiny, Phillips instead directed me to another road—one where intellectual rigor does not preclude an emotional vulnerability. Imagine that! That my poems can be, at once, deeply interested in investigating the discourses (gender, race, sexuality, nation, history, et al) that have and continue to affect my body—without forgetting I do have a body, one that’s laughed, has been hit, been caressed, has been hurt, will inevitably hurt others. Imagine that I could attempt a poem that aims to be as contradictory, as human and flawed, as my very nature is.

Carl Phillips, I mean, gave me permission. His work showed me how to stand in the face of the unfamiliar, the modern, the profane, historical, mythic and, finally, the sacred; to constantly fall, and enjoy that falling, hitting at different angles each of these unknowns, so that whatever bruises my body acquires might possibly bloom into revelation. The sensation is not all negative—it is queer, which is to say the pain can turn pleasant or the river that drowns you, to paraphrase one of my favorite poems by Phillips, will run sweet, become honey. Above anything, that’s a lesson I’m still grateful to have received. It’s a lesson, perhaps, we all need.

Rickey Laurentiis‘ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, including Boston Review, Fence, jubilat, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, Oxford American and Poetry. 

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Carl Phillips’ poems provide us with tidal landscapes suffused with inestimable desire, which is then stripped to its own tense beauty and nearly unbearable light. To desire is to exist if we are human and Carl is one of the most beautiful and powerful beings I’ve ever met. His language, structural and intimate, demands your breathing and, your hunger. Consider these lines from “Leda, After the Swan”: “the wings/raised, held in/strike-or-embrace/position,/I recognized/something more/than swan, I can’t say.” The work dares itself to be a world within and beyond the narrow fields we often seed and cull and dare to call “a life”. A moment in any one of his poems burns for hours, years. You want the burning or do you, his poems often ask. And I’ve said nothing yet about Carl’s humor! And how, in his presence, to see the world through his voice and his eyes is to experience lightning. Humanity so abundant you are changed. I met Carl seven years ago in Baltimore and have been gratefully changed ever since. As his friend, I am fortunate that we share both laughter and sorrow. And I believe and remember this truth when I read his poetry.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist whose forthcoming collection, Lighting the Shadow, will be published by Four Way Books in 2015. 

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I think I felt late to the party by the time I encountered Phillips’s books in a workshop at UNC-Greensboro. Up to that point I had been a grad-school medievalist with a pretty robust affinity for Latin verse – all those old Roman heartbreakers like Statius and Propertius. I remember feeling of his work: these poems are the vital extension. The permanence of them, even in their rhetorical pivot. Not just for a time, as Dickinson would say. Years later I had the luck of being up at Bread Loaf where I read a variation of an ode by Horace in a small white theater. It provoked a conversation and I remember quite clearly apprehending the same kind of graceful curiosity in his person that inhabited his poems. The glissade of the poems’ argumentation – in the face of the irrational, the erotic, the traumatic – is such a necessary elision of the lyrical voice and whatever public amphitheater it could suddenly find itself in.

Michael C. Peterson’s poems are recently published in journals such as FenceMichigan Quarterly ReviewCincinnati Review, and elsewhere.

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I remember encountering these remarkable lines in Carl Phillips’ The Rest of Love when I was an undergraduate at Boston University: “Now he’s / singing, cadence of a rough sea—A way of / crossing a dark so unspecific, it seems / everywhere: isn’t that what singing, once, / was for?”

I was finding my way, like these line-endings, through the unspecific darks of poetry and sex. Carl Phillips’ poems continue to give me—as a young poet and as a young gay poet—permission to write about these complementary creative acts, and a fascinating model for doing so.  I love the way his poems treat even the most carnal desire with tenderness and meditative grace, as they perform, without sentimentality, without ironic armor, the restlessness of desire.  What pushes and shifts in Carl Phillips’ poetry is the working of the mind, the tension between the syntax of our thoughts and our need to organize them into art.  I love the way his poetry feels both ancient and modern, both wildly experimental and as traditional as can be.  Years later, I find myself moved by new lines (these from his newest collection, Silverchest), by desire—his and mine and ours—enacted in language: “Then it seemed I myself was the field, / the words fell toward, then into me, each one no / sooner getting understood, than it touched the ground.”

Richie Hofmann, an MFA student at Johns Hopkins, has poems forthcoming in Ploughshares and the New Republic.

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