Garth Greenwell: POETRY IN REVIEW
Pastoral, by Carl Phillips. Graywolf Press, 2000. $14.00.

The epigraph, from Robert Duncan, with which Pastoral
opens asserts the collection’s most insistent concern:
"Come back. Come back. / Tell us of excess. / What was
the sign that limited?" The longing for both excess
and limitation creates the tension that is at the
heart of Carl Phillips’ new book, and with
characteristic thoughtfulness, Phillips pursues this
tension through the territories that have long been
his obsessions: the body, art, transience, and desire.
New to this collection are a stranger music, a more
strained syntax, and a greater commitment to
difficulty, all of which allow him to address Duncan’s
question with determined and uneasy care.
      The thirty-six short lines of the poem "All Art"
epitomize Phillips’ refusal to attempt a final answer
to that question, affirming as they do both the
inadequacy of form and its necessity. Seeking, as do
many of the poems, its start in nature, the poem

           Routinely the sea,
           unbuckling, out-
           swells the frame it will

           return to, be
           held restively by.

Allegorizing the sea by placing around it a
"frame"-allowing it to be exemplary not only of
nature, but of "All art"-these lines seem to accept
limitation only with ambivalence, resignation. By the
poem’s end, however, the poet calls for containment in
its most violent sense, affirming form even as he
calls for his own dissolution:


           Hard Master
           I called out,
           Undo me, at last

           understanding how
           gift, any difficult
           knot is-by

           fingers, time, patience-
           undone, knowing
           too the blade by which

           -if it means
           the best, the ripest fruit-oh,
           let the limbs be cut back.

      Although these poems are not "formal" in the narrow
sense of the term, their thematic preoccupation with
limitation and form is echoed in lines and patterns
are always carefully, often nearly perfectly, crafted.
While occasionally using a regular pentameter,
Phillips more characteristically employs a supple,
shorter line of two- or three-beats; though not his
only stanza form, tercets are here, as in his earlier
volumes, the norm. What is most exciting about these
poems, however, is their syntax: Phillips, perhaps
more than any other poet of his generation, is
fascinated by the play of syntax against line, and he
has shown a nearly Berryman-esque willingness to
torque conventional word order and the rhythms of
everyday speech. This produces difficulty, but, as
with Berryman, it is a difficulty that is more often
than not richly rewarded. The second sentence of
"Dearest Won," for example, one of the few poems
written in a nearly consistent pentameter, is a marvel
of syntactic invention:

               Confess-if I grow used,
           now, to a life all jazz-less blow and drag
           of storm, it was not always so: before

           I’d crossed a lover’s trust, only to learn
           I did not mind it; before I’d broken-
           not a heart, but that as-yet deviceless,

           still-apt-at-knee-to-buckle child that,
           having looked every elsewhere, we turn
           at last to the heart’s winded field and

           find, by a first snow amused, amazed,

Phillips’ difficulty, his skewed syntax, doesn’t serve
at all to distance the poem from its reader; if
anything, his poems’ emotional impact is served by
their winding clauses and deferred conclusions.
Phillips has consistently confounded the notion that
emotional effectiveness is best served by a simplicity
of diction or dilution of intellectual heft. While
not quite as demanding as the poetry of his former
teacher, Geoffrey Hill, Phillips’ poems require-and
more than repay-effort, patience, and re-reading. Nor
is Phillips’ syntax difficult for the sake of
difficulty; by constantly pressuring the pentameter in
which they are enclosed, "cut back," these lines
foreground restiveness, the ways in which
language-which is itself a thing of forms, of systems
and hierarchies-resists containment.
     That resistance-to containment, to clearly delimited
boundaries and the concept of "enough"-given bodily
form, is hunger, and Phillips maps his aesthetic
concerns onto bodies that are both desiring and
desired, resilient and consumed. Throughout these
poems, desire is a permanent, unassuageable force, a
condition that resists abundance. In the book’s first
poem, "A Kind of Meadow," for instance, the poet
insists upon the insatiability of want:

               vowing Only until
           there’s nothing more
           I want-thinking it, wrongly

           a thing attainable, any real end
           to wanting, and that it is close, and that
           it is likely, how will you not

           this time catch hold of itÉ

This wanting is, of course, sexual, but not only that:
it is also a religious wanting, the desire for God,
the desire of the soul to transcend flesh. And, for
Phillips, religious and sexual wanting are not only
not opposed, but seemingly inextricable. In "Hymn,"
an anonymous sexual encounter becomes an occasion for
the contemplation of God:

                again the stranger’s

           strange room entered not for prayer
           but for striking
           prayer’s attitude, the body

           kneeling, bending, until it finds
           the muscled patterns that
           predictably, given strain and

           release, flesh assumes.
           When I think of desire,
           it is in the same way that I do

           God: as parable, any steep
           and blue water, things that are always
           there, they only wait

           to be sounded.

      Sexual desire lurks within all of these poems,
informing all notions of restiveness and want. The
book’s final, and perhaps most impressive, poem is
"The Kill." It is a love poem, but one that is
startling in its alternations of violence and
tenderness, and in its extraordinarily ambivalent
close. One of several recurring images that haunt the
collection, the figure of a stag, is unveiled in this
poem as a queering of one of the oldest metaphors in
our tradition: that of the (female) beloved as a doe,
familiar from the Song of Songs and nearly constant in
English poetry since Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch.
Phillips’ poem, then, occupies one of our oldest
clichŽs-but does so in a way that is remarkably fresh:

                 and last,

           as from a grove in
           flame toward any air
           more clear, the stag, but

           this time its bent
           head a chandelier, rushing
           for me, like some

           distraction. I looked back,
           and instead of you, saw

           the soul-at-labor-to-break-its-bonds
           that you’d become. I tensed
           my bow:

           one animal at attack,
           the other-the other one
           suffering, and love would

           out all suffering-

The cliche` of amorous pursuit as hunt is here anything
but trite, both because of the final, confused
conflation of hunter and hunted ("one animal at
attack, / the other-"), and because of the poem’s
conclusion, hauntingly left open, in which love is
both tenderness and savagery. The poem also-while
never resolving the tension, between excess and
limitation, that has motivated so much of this
collection-foregrounds the final confounding of form,
which is death and its corresponding decay. And yet
it is precisely this decay that motivates artistic
creation, that necessitates the imposition, however
uneasy, of form: as Phillips writes in "Hour of Dusk,"
"It is / why I sing for them, I think. That // it
must, all of it, go."

Garth Greenwell is a Literature and Lesbian and Gay Studies major at Purchase College, SUNY. He was recently awarded the 2000 Grolier Poetry Prize.


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