Review of Double Shadow by Carl Phillips

Double Shadow, by Carl Phillips

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. $23.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by James Crews

The poet Carl Phillips must love the sea, standing “where the land ends no differently/ than it’s ever had to.” I don’t think he’d ever simply say “on the beach.” He loves not just the physical and emotional spaces between lovers, but also those spaces between the body and what might call the self for lack of a better word. These spaces show up constantly in the poems of his new collection, Double Shadow, which seem to yearn toward the light of a new love his speaker can never quite trust, wanting instead the “regretlessness” that blesses others so easily. If we read his last book, Speak Low, as chronicling the destruction of a relationship, Double Shadow still suffers from the aftershocks of such a disruption, many of the pieces still up in the air, scattered on the ground, having not quite settled in place.

Whether looking at the sky, the sea, or standing alone in a field—one of Phillips’ favorite settings—we’re never quite sure where we are exactly, and this poet likes it like that. He cannot help disturbing the still waters with questions like this one in “Sky Coming Forward”:

. . . 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?

This book explores that “third life” at every turn, just as his previous books have, obsessed with dream and the illusory nature of emotions and real things. Description fails him constantly, and it’s no surprise then that the idea of “blindness” should figure greatly in Double Shadow, the world as unsee-able as the inner lives of humans, “blindness not at all/ a gift to be held to the chest.” But if it is not a gift, what is it? Is it a curse, a burden? Phillips wants us to wonder. This poet almost always turns a blind eye to those images that might help us to see more clearly, and we can safely assume this is a very conscious choice he’s made since he tells us, “they are not the same—inability, / unwillingness.” We see a poet rejecting specificity, striving for something more universal or perhaps classical: an injured man hauled in a cart along the sea, several scenes of lions having devoured their prey. In this way, like mood rings made of some more precious metal (“nostalgia; gold”), these poems give back whatever we ourselves bring to them. They are as generous as the “wildering field” that recurs, a “space of hunger,” or as the opening poem “First Night at Sea” says, “a dark where was a brightness, a bright where dark.” The poems are both at the same time—light and dark. It’s as if his language, its meanings, are ever-waving and wavering like blades of sea grass displacing themselves. Though Mark Doty was talking about Rilke’s Duino Elegies when he said it, I’d say the same assessment applies: “Like all great poems, they simply seem to rewrite themselves before you as you read. Their capacity to delight and provoke does not weary with time.” If we find difficulty in pinning down some of these pieces, it is because Carl Phillips is reaching for that same timelessness.

Indeed, he has a talent for equating abstractions of love and erotic life with what he finds around him—horses, weak starlight, a lover—but the most frustrating thing about reading Phillips is that the equations (like description, like language) fail; they are never quite exact. He tells us what things were not or almost were much more often than he offers clear definitions. Those readers not willing to go along with this might call it caginess, and he does have a seeming disdain for concrete, actual images. The aforementioned “Continuous Until We Stop” finds the poet circling the poems sole image—that ubiquitous field—but any sense of solid ground unravels as he describes “the zone of tragedy–transition” as:

when the body surrenders to risk, that moment
when an unwillingness to refuse can seem

no different from an ability to,
though they are not the same—inability,

He might have stopped there on a note of authority, but goes on, “To have said otherwise / doesn’t make it true, or even make it count / as true. Yes but what does the truth matter now, I whispered.” These lines demand a lot of even a sympathetic reader, since the act of parsing just what he means entails pausing and imagining the negation of the previous lines, only to be told that that negation “doesn’t make it true, or even make it count as true.” In the end, the speaker himself is asking—a lover, himself, us, the “almost night”—”What does the truth matter now.” Because uncertainty is his ongoing project, Phillips consistently rejects what others might call “truth” as transitory, implying that in this in-between place perhaps some “third” truth is “blooming” just beyond our human grasp and thus out of the reach of every reader and the author as well. For those who enjoy a test of patience, this poet provokes.

One senses, however, an aching in the poems of this new book, a need to break free from the subjects of “risk” and “surrender,” which we have so often visited in his past work. Perhaps some of the new pieces in Double Shadow mark the same kind of shift that occurred with Riding Westward (his best book yet), when he moved beyond some of the shorter, “muscular” and “athletic” lines in favor of what still reads like fuller, more robust poetry than he’d been writing before. Phillips is never afraid to question himself and his own strategies, and one hopes that some of that healthy interrogation will continue in the next books as—in that grasping for timelessness—many of these pieces founder. This is most evident in “Clear, Cloudless” when the speaker tells us,

 . . . I wear on my head a crown
of feathers—among which, sure, I have had
my favorites. Fear, though, is the bluest feather,
and it is easily the bluest feather the wind loves most.

Though those last lines ring so true, the poem itself is a bit trapped by its own metaphors. It’s hard not to cringe when one imagines a grown man putting on “a crown/ of feathers,” out of any context in which that might otherwise make sense. But for the most part, there is little context in Phillips’ work. Such images are a part of his personal lexicon, but one wants to channel William Carlos Williams at times and chant, “Things! Things! More things!”

Another of Phillips’ signatures, the sudden italics of some voice speaking or something singing, has by now become a mere flourish, a kind of tic in each of the poems that distracts from their power. In “Of the Rippling Surface,” the italics show up as if out of nowhere—”Nothing was was nothing nothing was”—though we are then told “that’s the river singing,” not a little mysteriously. I could accept that, but there is something not quite genuine about the voice-in-italics which ushers in “The Shore” with the imperative, “Don’t be afraid—Don’t go—Passenger me back to / a land called neither Honeycomb nor Danger. Clearly, he’s exploring again the space that must exist between pleasure (“Honeycomb”) and risk (“Danger”), but the words don’t feel anything like what one lover might say to another. He suggests as the poem goes on that these lines are a “prayer,” but prayers are much simpler than this. They are more specific and in this case it’s hard to decipher what putting them in italics accomplishes for the poem, or for the many others with italics in this book.

Still, one hates to bash a poet for simply doing what he does best. Besides, there are still exquisite pieces in Double Shadow, which find beauty in this constant act of questioning. Phillips most often finds strength and tenderness when he speaks of the flowering of what one presumes is new love. “Night” comes to mind—it has been in this reader’s head for days—with its unforgettable last stanza:

. . . The restless choir
that any human life can be, sometimes, casts forth
all over again its double shadow: now risk, and now
faintheartedness—we’re not what
                                              either of us expected,
are we?—each one a form of disembodiment,
without the other.

Because “disembodiment” means both physical separation from the body as well as from all concrete form, Phillips implies that love, in spite of his distrust of its comforts, in spite of its inability (or “unwillingness”) to set free the speaker or the beloved—nevertheless helps harness us to the few things we can see clearly enough and feel confidently enough to put into words. Love grounds us, he says. In “Heaven and Earth,” which appeared in the Best American Poetry 2010 anthology, and whose title belies yet another in-betweenness, another kind of disembodiment, never shies from concreteness, though, and the poet moves between abstraction-and-question and the actual with his usual deftness:

What am I, that I should stand
so apart from my own happiness? The stars did
what they do, mostly: looked unbudging, transfixed,
like cattle asleep in a black pasture, all the restlessness
torn out of them, away, done with. I turn beneath them.

Phillips seems to crave “the rest of love,” but can never quite give up the “restlessness” of the search for it, except in fleeting moments, “as a horse in harness to what, inevitably, must break it.” Carl Phillips has tethered himself to a language all his own that attempts to illumine the space between what the body wants and the mind needs. With brutal honesty, he admits in “Civilization,” “even hunger / can become a space / to live in.” Phillips lives there, and we cannot blame him if he invites us, reluctantly, to join him.