For many years he has taught at Washington University in St. Louis, where he now holds a chair, and he also has taught at the Cave Canem Foundation's summer workshops. When I first met him, Carl was a soft-spoken, disarmingly funny, dazzlingly smart person, and these traits, along with his distinctive gift for syntax (which he once told an interviewer, I believe, he learned from his study of Classical poetry, a field he explored in graduate school for a while), also mark his poetry, which often unfolds in slow, serpentine fashion, the effect almost like wandering into a cloud, or fog, in which are suspended particular moods, or feelings, only partially perceptible at first, but then, and this happens not infrequently in Carl's poems, what follows a line or stanzaic break might be an image, a truth, a recognition or realization embedded in either, that cracks like a whip right at the center of your consciousness, so quickly you don't and can't realize what hit you.
It one of his many gifts as a poet. Between the hypotaxis, the enjambment, the suspension, not just in Latinate but sometimes in the fashion almost of German syntax of key words and ideas, and his precision with regard to imagery and recurring symbols (cf. arrows, sheep, and so forth), his careful use of conceits and extension of metaphor across an entire poem, and, as I said, a wry humor that springs on you without warning, his poetry works real magic. It was already thus from the very first book. Here is a poem from another early book of his, my favorite, Cortège (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1995), whose raison d'être will gel if you sit with it for a bit. Oh, and I mentioned that this was a post of congratulations: last night Carl received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, for his most recent book (also nominated for many other awards), Double Shadow: Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Congratulations to an exceptional poet.
ÉTUDE IN D Late-American. A boy mostly, but with a man's half-concerns about letting his hair go, or how his eyes and just under, tired of waiting him out, show signs of going without him. Other times--weekends, the odd stolen day off--any man in boy's armor: big-boy boots, pants that fail to hide enough ankle. A name, spelled backwards, falling somewhere between god and what's good. All the promise of salt, how it hangs back on the tongue for a while after. Connect, miss briefly, try again: his method. Every word has meaning, but the way something simple--a flower, a bird-- means. A song, but with all the notes left pending, so a poem. So a kind of music. Himself the last to give a name to it.
Copyright © Carl Phillips, "Étude in D," from Cortège, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1995. All rights reserved.