Saturday, April 21, 2012

Poem: Carl Phillips

Today's poem is one of congratulations! to a poet I've read for nearly 20 years. I met and befriended him right before he was to publish his first book, the award-winning In the Blood (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992, selected by Rachel Hadas), when he connected with the Dark Room Writers Collective, which I've mentioned a bit here over the last few weeks. I am talking about the one and only Carl Phillips (1959-), who is, as I write this, one of the most important writers of his generation, a major American and African-American poet, a highly esteemed teacher and subtle critic and dedicated mentor of many other poets and writers. He has published 11 books of poetry, and 1 of criticism, I believe, and received, among many honors, the Kingsley Tufts Prize, Lambda Literary Prize, and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. He also serves as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.

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.


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.

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