A Dream in Horses: Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow

Kascha Semonovitch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, NY, 2011. 80 pages. $23.00.

Double ShadowIn Double Shadow, Carl Phillips has a “dream / of horses. Two of them. Fitted with blinders.” The harness restricts the vision of the horses. Phillips records their perception, not only in the poem where the line appears, but throughout the book; this intimacy with horses is one of several tropes carried forward from his earlier Riding Westward (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). The dream horses, I imagine, see a lit path before them, surrounded by darkness. They see only the path forward: “the present / future they kept thundering into.”

Such restriction seems to Phillips to be “the better life, the best way.” Especially in love or in loss, we humans have this habit of stretching ourselves between the now and the not yet, the is and the was. To be in erotic love is, after all, to desire what you are not, what is other than the self, what is not like(philia, brotherly) you but what you lack: not what is present but what is or was possible. As Phillips tries to separate himself from the lover, he fights with himself about the status of the lover: “You’re a memory     You’re / the future     You’re a memory.” Is the lover only part of the past or is it permissible to hope for him in the future? Rather than suffer this distension, Phillips suggests it is better to be like the horses. It is better to narrow your focus on the future, not to stretch the soul between the past, the present—which never appears anyway—and the future. Phillips points out this pattern and asks himself about it:

for a moment, just the rings that form then disappear
around where some latest desire—lost, or abandoned—
dropped once, and disturbed the water. To forget—
then to 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?

He triangulates between the future and the past to find the “third life” in the present. This third life takes a “dreamlike hold,” but this is the life he’s actually leading. Dreaming assists him in healing himself. As he puts it in the title of a poem, when one loves or loses, there arises “The Need For Dreaming.” For the lover, just as “a scar commemorates what happened, / so is memory itself but a scar” and the beloved marks the lover’s body, present in his absence. Dreaming massages the scar, relaxing and breaking up the flesh of memory, permitting it to release its stiff protection on the wounds of the past.

As in Riding Westward and 2009’s Speak Low, dreams infuse Phillips’s perception with visions of what is not, not yet or not any more. This dream logic occasionally—and not entirely unpleasantly—unbalances the similes, toppling one on another, a sort of domino chain of metaphor. Often, similes chain together in threes: for example, in “Ransom,”  “the sea” is like “that underworld that mostly the mind resembles.” The sea that is like the underworld that is like the mind. In “Fascination,” the light is like a moon which is like desire: the “shape of the light getting cast / upward, onto the room’s ceiling became a kind / of moon, some / overlooked, last round of desire.” In “Night,” it (lingering love?) is like “blow-flies to a carcass,” but also “a gift” and “a music that lingers.” At times, however, these chains of signifiers and signified can be as frustratingly irresolvable as a Lacanian analysis, leading only to the discovery of the multiplicity of the self and the infant-like act of self-reflection attempting to tie it all up. As in dreams, the “I” that guides the eye of perception enters the poems hesitantly and often recedes; more often than a directive first person, Phillips offers a third person or second person direct-address, as if he hardly attends his own transformation. In the final poem of the book, “Cathedral,” the “I” disappears altogether. Nature, not the subject, dominates: finally, there is “No torch; no lantern—and yet no hiddenness, now. No hiding. / Leaves flew through where the wind sent them flying.” Here, the speaker experiences what he “meant to show” the lover in Riding Westward: “I’d meant to show you that. / Wind enters and leaves / the tower like a thing that lives there—but nobody / lives there, no one, I kept meaning to say.”

He even dreams that God has a dream: there he is, “God shutting his eyes, / dreaming, / clutching tightly / to his chest the snake—restored, forgiven—as it / hisses lullaby.” God sleeps all wrapped up with sin; to find one is to find the other. As in the vision of the dream horses, the light shows up in contrast to the dark around it.

I wonder if Phillips would mind being called a Manichean? Generally, theologians avoid it: Manicheans divided the world into dark and light, good and bad, and witnessed the distribution and embattlement of these forces. They reject this view that implies a force capable of combating the divine good on equal ground. (In other words, good wouldn’t be the only game in town.) Evil shouldn’t have a force of its own: evil arises from the human act of sin, from turning from the godhead, source of all good. God illuminates the world like a flashlight from the corner: if you stare in the right direction, all you see is light; to look the opposite way is to encounter shadows.

Phillips dares to face such shadows, even double shadows. And what are these double shadows? He tells us once of the “gray of doves, in shadows”: dark birds, made darker by context. Elsewhere, human life “casts forth / all over again its double shadow: now risk, and now / faintheartedness.” Dim animals, we cast shadows, sin, with each act, even love, however well-intentioned. I began to envision the double shadow created by two people, two shadows overlapping and merging into deeper darkness.

This book performs variations on themes from Riding Westward, both in method and in content. That can be thrillingly pleasant if you enjoyed his early work, as I did. One might see this book as a completion or maturation of Riding Westward; that said, it sometimes seems to lean on the establishment of the earlier book. At times, you may become lost following Phillips’s perception, untwining the chain of signifiers and following the idiolect of dream allusions. In spite of Phillips’s private landscape of symbolism—why horses? cathedrals? what do the doves mean?—, you will no doubt recognize a familiar path of love and loss. Phillips also marks this personal landscape with allusions to Dante, Blake, Dickinson, and the Bible. Like road signs pointing in directions you aren’t going, these allusions nonetheless provide orientation in what can be a confusingly intimate dreamscape.

This is an oneiric book, a sleepy, twilight book, a walk along the shore at dusk. As you trail Phillips you’ll hear, “Across the dark—/ through it—the occasional handful of notes: someone / else out there singing?” and you’ll receive “A map / unfolding, getting folded back up again.”

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