"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Update from New England Review: NEA Grant

New England Review has posted an announcement on its website about the grant it's been awarded from the National Endowment for the Arts: http://www.nereview.com/NEA_announcement.html

This is wonderful news for a publication that is faced with the loss of its institutional (Middlebury College) funding at the end of 2011. NER is still seeking financial support to ensure its viability for the future. Please support them if you can (see my earlier post).

Friday, November 26, 2010

Keep New England Review Alive

Recent years have been even harder than usual on print-based literary magazines. Some have gone out of print, while others are currently putting up a fight to stay alive. New England Review is one of the latter, and it's hard to think of a more quintessential literary magazine than NER. As a young college student growing more serious by the day about literature and writing, I spent a lot of time in the university library reading a certain few literary magazines, the ones that seemed to me to be publishing the most consistently engaging work. NER was at the top of that short list. To this day, it has never flagged in its excellence.

NER recently published a translation of mine--a great honor for the boy who used to spend so many hours in the library with NER in hand!--and the degree of engagement from both Stephen Donadio and Carolyn Kuebler in meticulously reading the piece and working with me to improve it has only increased my respect for this publication and my sense that they are doing the kind of devoted editorial work that sadly seems rare these days.

NER is now faced with the loss of its funding from Middlebury College at the end of 2011, and we are in danger of losing one of the country's finest publications. A recent update and request for support mailed out by NER highlights both some good news (subscriptions up 25% from last year; 120 new donors) and the amount of funding still needed ("less than halfway toward making NER pay its own way"). Their goal is to increase their existing endowment to such an extent as would secure the financial viability of the magazine not only for next year, but for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, they must make their appeal for help to a historically un-wealthy demographic: poets, writers of literary fiction, and scholars. I myself am among the most un-wealthy of the un-wealthy in this demographic! But I know that there are some of you out there who can afford to help sustain one of our country's finest literary institutions. I urge you to consider helping NER continue publication.

Mail support to:
New England Review
Middlebury College
5 Court Street
Middlebury, VT 05753-6014

**UPDATE (11/29/10)**
Just announced on NER's Facebook page: "just received notice that the magazine will receive its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- $10,000 toward publishing and promoting great new writing through 2011."
Great news! They still need our support. Please consider helping.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Final Posthumous Collection of William Matthews' Work

The last of poet William Matthews' (1942 - 1997) uncollected work, New Hope for the Dead: Uncollected Matthews, edited by his son Sebastian along with Stanley Plumly, is now available from Red Hen Press. This volume includes not only uncollected poems, but short stories, essays, letters, interviews, and recipes. The two previous posthumous collections of Matthews' work are Search Party: Collected Poems (Houghton Mifflin) and The Poetry Blues: Essays & Interviews (University of Michigan Press), both edited by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly. 

Below are two links for the new collection, one to Amazon and one to the Red Hen Press site. Unfortunately, the Red Hen Press site doesn't have much information about the book up yet, though it is listed and you can purchase it directly from them, which I encourage. (Support literary presses!)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Featured Artist: Emilia Phillips

Photo by Patrick Scott
Vickers, 2010
Emilia Phillips is a young poet you should know. She is my second "featured artist" (the first was photographer Meghan Rand), and with her permission I have selected three of her poems to reprint here as an introduction to her work. Her poetry is evidence that she is finely attuned to the intricacies of individual thought and feeling and to the complexities of human relationships. She is a maker of beautiful phrases, a discerning teller of small but powerful stories, a writer who at the end of her poems leaves the reader in a state of meditation. It is a testament to her abilities that perhaps her finest poem is quite a long one--"Honeymoon Hiking," the last poem in my selection below.

Emilia is the current Lead Associate Editor at Blackbird and she is a student in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She received a BA in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her poetry has appeared in 42opus, The Adirondack Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Cutthroat, Poetry Miscellany, Sixth Finch, Unsaid Magazine, and elsewhere. She was named the 2009 Discovery Poet by Cutthroat. Her chapbook of poems, Strange Meeting, was published by Eureka Press in March, 2010. Her chapbook can be purchased by contacting Eureka Press at eurekapress@gmail.com.

All poems reprinted by permission of the author.

Creation Myth*

for Bill Root

I wouldn’t drink from the creek next to my house
that runs like a vein of old blood
to the Tennessee. Somewhere in Kentucky,
a poet is leading his congregation
in a service for the Church
of Elkhorn, but there’s no god,
just a low mist standing in for the Holy Ghost,
just kayaks and wet suits on Sundays, and the day’s
collect taken from Byron or Shelley. I ought to be
thy Adam, the creature says to Frankenstein,
but the creature was never as pretty as the Adam
on the walls of the Church of the Holy Trinity
in Hrastovlje where a fault line waits beneath
its stone, waiting to open the earth like a bloom.
As a child, my grandfather ate dandelion
sandwiches, just weeds placed between Wonder
bread, when there was nothing else. I sat in chapel,
as a child at an Episcopal school, watching the rain, wanting
the school to flood until we were stuck there living
off of communion crackers and paddling the halls
in canoes made of church pews. Even now,
as I sit on the bank of the creek, I root my feet
into the cool sludge and mud and touch
the healed rib that was broken years ago.

*originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review; reprinted from Strange Meeting



The technician, in training,
pulls a blade through a blue bar
of soap, carving to the size
of a bullet, then the fine
etching—the exact angle
of a lingual ridge, the precise
contour of a right maxillary
cuspid’s cingulum. To know
human anatomy one must
recreate it, little by little:
porcelain tooth, glass
eye, artificial heart.


When the blue tray arrives in the lab
bloody, craters of teeth gummed up
with a patient’s breakfast of Total, eggs
over easy, he begins sterilizing, cleaning,
spraying COE on the impression
as his father, the doctor, comes in
saying the patient is HIV positive.

Before lunch, wash your hands several
times or wear an extra pair of gloves if 
it’ll make you feel better, he says and sling-
shots his glove into the biohazard bin
as one of the guys on finishing turns
the radio up and the blood thins
in the water going down the drain.


As a child, he never wanted to lose
his teeth, so his older sister used to pull
them because she said it was gross
when one fell from his bottom row
like a collapsing thumb puppet. She forced
him into the bathroom after school, locked door,
a paper towel printed with flowers and ribbon
in her hand, stomped on his toe so he’d open
his mouth to yell. That’s when she snagged
the tooth, the root giving way like loose
thread from a school shirt his mother let out
because he was getting so big now, but he cried,
his tongue in the tender gap until sleep, until the next
morning, under his pillow, he found money
that smelled of his father’s leather wallet.


The tech hands the impression off
to the modelers to begin their recreation
of what a human mouth should look like,
and he sneaks into the office, peeks
into the room where the patient waits,
easing out of the gas. She raises her head,
her thin neck strung with a bib painted
brown with blood, and she smiles. Her teeth,
what’s left of them: black, soft, jagged.

*reprinted from Strange Meeting

Honeymoon Hiking*

St. John, USVI

We’ve seen the donkeys, their white
brutish heads through our rented Jeep

window, snuffling for Reese’s Pieces
in the door handle, and the goats

that stand in the middle of undular
mountain roads, billies knocking

heads, sound like clapped stones,
or steel striking flint. We saw Carnival in Cruz

Bay: torches, masquerading women,
pasty stands, and spits of pig, lobsters laid

whole on the grill, red shells scarring with flame,
and now we go for the Taino’s

petroglyphs, only two miles down
the Reef Bay trail. A steep gully, path laced

with darting lizards, their brown bodies blending
with leaves. My feet in sandals, cinched

tight—I didn’t expect hiking on my honeymoon.
No boots in my bag, or awkward ankle

brace, Velcro and laces, holding
my gait together unsexily. Sweating,

short of breath, we climb over roots, rocks.
My ankle turns, once and then again,

pull of old surgery scars, ache of two screws
in my left heel, steel heads visible beneath

skin. We find the dry waterfall, the pool
that stays the same depth all year through

rainy season and drought. Mosquitoes feast
on us, their buzzing burrowing in our ears.

The carvings rim the pool,
reflect off the still green, reflect on the Tainos’

belief in duplicity, parallel worlds, earth
and sky, gully and mountain. Unseen birds

open their throats. My ankle swells to the size
of breadfruit and I sit on the rocks

near empty Park Service cages, bars
gone rusty, metal skeletons spurred

with the waterfall’s mineral deposits. A sign that reads:
Please do not touch, feed, or release this animal.  I swat

a mosquito, a splatter of blood. Two nights before,
drunk on dark rum

housekeeping left in the ice bucket and stoned
on the green bought off the shuttle driver,

Roger (who pronounces his name more
Like Rah-juh, so we kept singing songs

In a fake accent, lyrics like “Rah-juh, the coolest fuck-uh
on this whole island”), my husband cut his foot wide open

on shell or dry coral. He didn’t notice.
It was dark, he couldn’t feel pain—

blood soaking into the white
sand, puddling on the tile of our room floor

when he went in for the Cruzan. Three donkeys
slept underneath seagrapes that lined

the beach. I went in when my husband
passed out on an Adirondack

chair. I nearly slipped on the blood, my heart opening
to a faster pumping, and ran outside

to wake him. One donkey raised his head,
lowered again, hot breath stirring

sand. I helped my husband in to see the blood—
Where was it from? But, as he walked, stumbled

ahead of me to the bathroom for tissue, his foot,
his heel, left a new trail.

I made him recline on the bed,
Though he asked if he was back on the boat

to Virgin Gorda, and I poured the rest
of the rum into the gully of muscle on his sole,

jagged skin, gone white. We hardly slept
that night, his nerves slowly growing

resonant to the pain, and me, unable
to sleep with the birds that call all

night—voices like warnings,
voices mating in song.

*reprinted from Strange Meeting

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Second Experience: A Review of Two Books by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu

by Luke Hankins

*This review originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review (issue 19, vol. 16, no. 1).

Stella Vinitchi Radulescu:
Insomnia in Flowers. Plain View Press, 2008.
Diving with the Whales. March Street Press, 2008.

Novice poets often make the mistake of putting most of their effort into evoking the feeling of experience rather than first practicing a more objective, concrete description of experience. If something is highly emotional, highly subjective, then to them it automatically qualifies as good poetry. They don’t realize it yet, but they are trying to take a shortcut to eliciting emotion in the reader. If the poem contains an overabundance of emotion, then how can the reader not have an emotional experience? The problem is that witnessing emotion or being told about emotion is not at all the same as having an emotional response to a firsthand experience. And I don’t think, when it comes to poetry, that this is a failure of sympathy. What happens is that, without a participatory experience on the reader’s part, any emotion in the poem is likely to remain unconvincing at best, or to seem like a gimmick at worst. The inexperienced poet does not yet understand that it is impossible to create emotion without creating experience for the reader—and that is precisely what all good poetry must do, rather than simply chronicling an emotional response to some other experience. The experience that a poem creates may be of any kind: realistic, fantastic, linguistic, rhetorical, philosophical, propositional, etc., etc. But if the poet is unaware of the need for creating an experience of one kind or another for the reader, he or she is not likely to succeed very often at doing so, merely by chance.

What Stella Vinitchi Radulescu does most expertly is to create an experience for the reader of her poems. The nature of the experience of reading a poem of hers is most often surrealistic, achieved in a sparse, fragmentary style. In many of her poems, she is also concerned with creating a meta-level linguistic experience. It is clear that many of her poems do chronicle emotional responses to various experiences, but she writes her poems with the inherent understanding that they must create a second experience that is not merely a retelling of the original. The opening poem of Radulescu’s collection, Insomnia in Flowers, is a fine example of this:

a room 
in the room 
my flesh in yours thank you mother 

thanks for taking me back for the fresh leaves 
the language I speak once a year when the sun 

digs you out cherry trees in blossom again 
rehearsing a new death
spelling loud your silence 
a short yes 
flowers for teeth 

teeth for flowers 
                (from “Spelling Loud”) 
What we can notice about Radulescu’s poem is that it is not a retelling of experience, but a distillation of experience. Thus the fragmentary images and thoughts—only those things that will be most vital for the reader’s second experience. She is also unafraid of defying the original experience for the sake of the second; in other words, she makes something new out of the material of the original experience, and is willing, even eager, to shape and distort the raw material. This way, she achieves a surrealistic effect, conflating the cherry trees with the mother, such that the blossoms begin by “spelling loud” the silence of the dead mother—in other words, simply reminding the speaker of her mother and of her death—and then morph to actually take on physical characteristics of her, to become her: “flowers for teeth / / teeth for flowers”. I would contend that this second experience that the reader has is not the same experience the poet (or the speaker of the poem) had, and yet, perhaps because the poem is not an attempt to simply recreate the same experience, and it is also not an attempt to convey emotion divorced from an experience of the reader’s own, it succeeds in conveying the emotional quality of the original.

Other poems of Radulescu’s seem less likely to have arisen from a single identifiable original experience, and yet are no less adept in creating an experience for the reader. We can see this in “Scream,” which I reproduce here in its entirety:

I went too far, too far in the woods. The tree
was there, the body hanging
from a branch.

It was yesterday, I was looking for God.

Free from gravity, his legs in the wind
right, left…
a creepy balance between shadows and light.

Too far on Earth, too far into night… I touched
the corpse, it went away in flames
and dust.

He is still here in the declining moon some words would fit
his skull

And I was scared, the scream
took my whole body with it, I thought I was flying…
But no, there I found myself stuck on the ground
from scream to scream building
an altar of silence.

This poem is more propositional than “Spelling Loud.” Even the fact that there are capital letters, as there rarely are in Radulescu’s poems, indicates that this is a narrative, discursive mode, rather than primarily an imagistic mode. Here, we have the idea of mystical pursuit taken too far. The poem seems to indicate that seeking God can be dangerous, when one is attempting to exceed the bounds of human knowledge and experience. And yet, the traumatic experience ultimately results in worship: “from scream to scream building / an altar of silence.” In this poem, Radulescu is proposing an idea rather than simply recounting an experience, and yet, it is through the reader's imaginative experience that the idea arrives so forcefully and so convincingly.

Oftentimes, in true Surrealist form, Radulescu's poems ask the reader to see combinations and juxtapositions of things that would not be possible in “the real world.” These surrealistic images and scenes create yet another kind of experience, akin to that in “Spelling Loud,” and yet distinct, because the surrealism in that poem can be read as psychological metaphor. It is not so easy to categorize other poems of hers this way, poems which are more fully surrealistic. The final stanza of the poem “If I Remember,” from Diving with the Whales, is a fine example:

lavender evening
ghosts approaching the shore
I follow their footpath I almost
hit a star

In “On Turtles and Death,” from Insomnia in Flowers, Radulescu combines her fascination with language itself with her surrealistic style:

the high tide leaves more verbs on the beach
I draw them all over my feet    they whisper

The title poem of Insomnia in Flowers contains these wonderful lines:

my house floats backwards on the river

a child in the garden opens
black wings

And Radulescu can be more playful as well, combining artistic or literary allusions to create unforgettable images:

sky was a joke in our late conversation
a man lighting his blue cigars
with Stevens' tie
(from “Stars are like Children,” Insomnia...)
It seems to me that Radulescu’s basic concern is spiritual investigation, and carrying the reader along, to the extent that it is possible, in her mystical pursuit. In “Starting Point,” from Diving with the Whales, she writes about seeking understanding, and says, “and what if I fail and what if I don’t,” acknowledging the fearfulness of each possibility—either perpetual uncertainty, or revelation that is too much to bear (as in “Spelling Loud,” quoted above). She goes on to say, in the third section of the poem:

the answer is in our hands
but we don’t understand a long time ago

we named things at random
now we are paying for it

we don’t see a soul like we see the moon rising
we don’t understand simple facts

where are we going
why do the seagulls cry     I have these words
sometimes I feel like touching their flesh
the roundness
and then I let them fall
one by one into your mouth, Mr. Nothing

make me an offer
I will buy your big and burning eyes

Those burning eyes of Mr. Nothing tell it all—Radulescu suspects that there really is no answer to the mystery of existence, no ultimate meaning. And yet, in personifying and speaking to that nothingness, the poem gives nothingness form and refuses to accept nihilism. The only way, for Radulescu, of approaching the mystery of existence, is words themselves. Notice how she makes them tangible: “I have these words / sometimes I feel like touching their flesh...”. And then they become the bargaining chips with which she will “buy [the] big and burning eyes” of Mr. Nothing by dropping them into his mouth. Radulescu is skeptical, but unrelenting, in her pursuit of mystery. In her unrelentingness, she reminds me of the 17th century Metaphysical poets, while stylistically, she is clearly a descendent of the Surrealists and Modernists. She has melded disparate traditions seamlessly in her poetry, and the precise mixture of elements in her work is perhaps unique in American poetry, and our poetry is richer for it. The reason her poetry is so successful is that it has the ability to offer the reader powerful experiences by which he or she can participate in the mystical pursuit that is the fundamental characteristic of her work.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Two Paintings

These are two small paintings I did last year during a long period of intense anxiety and depression. I decided to keep them, and they're now on the wall in my room. They've become precious to me, though I don't have any delusions about my abilities as a painter (that is, the lack thereof).


#1. Acrylic on cheap, crappy canvas board. 5"x7".

#2. Acrylic on cheap, crappy canvas board. 5"x7".

Monday, November 8, 2010

Brief Notes on a Sufjan Stevens Concert

Sufjan Stevens in concert ~ Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC ~ November 7, 2010

Please excuse the quality of these photos. I'm not a photographer, I don't have a fancy camera, and my seat wasn't terribly close to the stage. Still, I hope these images convey something of the experience.

Talking to the audience, Sufjan paraphrased Whitman: "Walt Whitman said that we contain multitudes. If so, I think we should also exhibit multitudes. That's just to explain my aesthetic a little bit."

Animated projections incorporated art by Royal Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic artist from Louisiana. Sufjan summarized Robertson's life and explained that he was the inspiration for much of his latest album, "The Age of Adz" (pronounced ah-dz).

You can hear Sufjan's recent EP, "All Delighted People," for free in its entirety here. I especially recommend the final track, "Djohariah."

Some of the most enrapturing projections were points of light that fell like snow, then coalesced like swarms of stars articulating new constellations: swans, bedroom windows, and landscapes.

 Retro dancing craziness . . . in a glowing diamond.

The costumes and the visual effects have been put aside for the encore. They played several songs, then Sufjan performed his final song alone on stage, an older song of his about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. It is a harrowing song. But perhaps the most shocking moment comes last, when the song ends quietly with the lyrics, "And in my best behavior / I am really just like him. / Look beneath the floorboards / for the secrets I have hid." It seemed an astonishing gesture toward humility and confession--hyperbolic, yes, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to claim of more popular musicians that they suffer from an excessive sense of humility rather than the opposite?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Review of Dust and Bread by Stephen Haven

*This review originally appeared in Indiana Review (31.1).

Stephen Haven. Dust and Bread. Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point, 2008. $17.00 paper (ISBN: 978-1932339024), 96 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Stephen Haven’s Dust and Bread opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson’s poem #575: “An Awe if it should be like that / Upon the Ignorance steals—.” In this collection, Haven’s poems present ignorance as a pathway to awe. The tourist or visitor is the primary metaphor in the first section of the book, a metaphor which resonates throughout the collection as a way of thinking about all situations in which one feels dislocated, unknowledgeable, or inexperienced. And in a larger sense, the metaphor comes to address the fundamental human condition.

In “Blossom,” the speaker, an American visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing, wonders, “What can a tourist know? The past / is made of stone.” It is clear that we are being presented the humble tourist, one who acknowledges his limitations regarding a history and a culture other than his own. This is the model Haven would hold up for the reader as a paradigm for life in the broadest sense. Humility of this kind—a willingness to admit and accept ignorance—bears much resemblance to Keats’ idea of negative capability. This collection can be seen as an explicit exploration of what Keats described as a capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The first section of the book explores (presumably) Haven’s own experience as an American visiting Beijing, which is the setting for deep complexities and conflicts in his experience of the world. In Beijing, he both witnesses the birth of his child and meditates on the Tiananmen Square massacre, which some members of his wife’s family experienced firsthand. In “Ultrasound,” Haven addresses his daughter while she is still in the womb, as her mother sings at her family’s home:

Only one young uncle falls asleep,
his face gone purple with grief and baijiu,

his one son lost shoveling coal
at the Beijing Duck Hotel,
then biking home, after dark, past

Tiananmen, June 4th.
Anniversary of absences,
song of a night to be sad.

Someone recalls, now, on his birthday,
in prison, your mother’s father was given
one boiled goose egg.


[T]he moon refuses to show,
masked in clouds and the earth’s shadow,
its power magnified behind a shroud.

Begonias of violence, man-powered stars
burst their last cartwheels
in a long rumor of dawn.

This is not a situation that begets certainty, and it is only within his experience of a conflicted world, in which he must ultimately admit ignorance, that any certainty arises. Here is the birth of his son (Haven’s biographical statement says that he lives with his wife “and their many children”), a moment of revelation—but one which depends on accepting ignorance:

we knew right then just what we were,
knew it was religion,
its work, its aspiration,
the body broken, breaking,
the blood poured out
                                      eternity itself—
or something like it—
glinting in and out of view
in the double black-brown crystal,
the deep translucence
of a one-day old.

This is one of the purest moments of awe in the collection, and awe is only possible when revelation is offered to one who waits in an attitude of humility and ignorance.  

The collection moves through three additional sections, each, like the first, containing nine poems—a formal parallel to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, described in the first section as “a times table,” the floor of each level being made up of slabs in multiples of nine. Haven also flexes his formal muscle with a few poems in received form: a sestina, a couple poems in blank verse, and a villanelle. Haven moves seamlessly into and out of traditional form, and indeed, the sestina is one of the finest poems in the collection—a young boy’s account of a Catholic bishop’s three-day stay at his house during a snowstorm. The poem starts with a somewhat trepidatious tone, but then the bishop begins to seem like part of the household:
                    ...something uncommon was in our home,
where we dealt the Queen of Spades, dark cousin of the snow,
the Bishop in my father’s robe, his new maroon pontificals.
We hoped it would snow and snow, that he wouldn’t go away.

A sestina requires the repetition of the end-words of each line in each stanza, but in a masterstroke of craftsmanship, Haven drops the word “pontificals” from the next, penultimate stanza (substituting “ponderous, fickle,” no less!), because for the boy, the bishop is no longer a symbol of the church, but an actual person. The word “pontificals” returns in the final stanza, but only as “the shock of his pontificals” in the snow as he leaves the house—a shock not only because of color, but because the man has been dissociated from his church office in the boy’s mind. This poem wonderfully describes a child’s process of unlearning, of entering a state of blessed ignorance that allows him to see the Bishop as a person for the first time. Here, as throughout Haven’s collection, we see the paradox of ignorance serving as a vital kind of knowledge.

The book’s title comes from a wonderful poem, “Summer in a Large House,” from the last section. Here, a woman who thinks she hears ghosts at night is comforted by her husband:

he held her when she asked, pressed into her
the rote illusion of some distant mass,
the only prayer he knew, of love and dust
and bread, and she recited it after him
though neither one could say to what or whom.
And still it pulled, born of one breath
that bent above them the cypress’s silhouette
and drifting, drifting, unseen everywhere,
pitched forever, it seemed to them forever,
dark and near in the warped old eaves of the ear.

It is in the state of uncertainty, both acknowledged and confessed (“he held her when she asked”), that what might be called awe is possible—awe at finding oneself a part of something incomprehensible, unfathomable, about which one must admit ignorance, and awe at finding oneself with one—ultimately, with many—who are capable of sharing both the ignorance and the awe. Dust and Bread is clear evidence that Haven is learned in the ways of ignorance, and that ignorance itself has taught him an abundance of beautiful things, not the least of which being a receptivity to revelation and the awe that can attend it.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Carl Phillips: A Review and an Interview

I am posting the following interview and review partly in response to James Rother's hatchet job on Carl Phillips at the usually stellar Contemporary Poetry Review. I won't go into much detail here, but Rother seems to entirely miss both the pleasures and the significance of the syntactical and rhetorical difficulties of Phillips's poetry. His review is full of witty locutions intended to elevate the writer of the review in the eyes of its readers, but for all of his bluster, the essence of what he writes is that he's upset that Phillips doesn't use end-rhyme or the kind of traditional prosody Rother would like to see and that his poems are bad, which is supposedly obvious to anyone who reads the quotes Rother offers from Phillips' poems ("Anyone who claims not to be able to detect a significant difference between these two passages of verse should, in my view, recuse him- or herself forever from considerations of what does or does not constitute poetry.").

I offer the following two pieces as a response to Rother's review.

Riding Westward: An Interview with Carl Phillips

*This interview originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, vol. 15 #1, issue 18.

Luke Hankins:  I have a friend who once said that T. S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative has been taken to an extreme in contemporary American poetry, has become an aesthetic doctrine that has ceased to be effective because of such strict insistence upon it. (Looking at Eliot’s poetry, especially his late work in “The Four Quartets,” don’t we see how little his concept of the objective correlative really applies to his own poetry?) This discussion reminded me of your collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, in which you say that we are today in danger of losing our ability to engage with abstraction (because of an over-dependence on a concrete “objective correlative,” perhaps), and that this handicap is wrapped up in an aesthetic or cultural posture which discounts beauty and authority. How might poets—and how do you—try to address this danger? Do you feel that these tendencies are continuing, or are they showing signs of suffocating themselves?

Carl Phillips:  For me, it’s instinctive to grapple with abstraction – I wouldn’t say that I am consciously trying to address the dangers of discounting beauty and authority.  I suppose that, merely by writing the way I do, about the things I write about, I’m offering a counterweight of some kind.  Part of what seems to lie behind a resistance to beauty is the fear of nostalgia and naïve sentiment, I think; and of course, a healthy distrust of authority seems essential.  But that shouldn’t mean that we can’t have a sense of an opinion from our experiences – that’s authority, but not fascism.  There’s a difference.  Without authority, I can’t believe what a poet is telling me.  And without an acknowledgment of beauty in its various  forms, a poem doesn’t speak to me of the real world.

LH:  As we have touched on, in the opening essay in Coin of the Realm, you remark upon a resistance among contemporary American poets to the idea of beauty (and abstraction in general). One cause of this resistance is, you claim, a mistaken view of beauty as “inorganic—without the capacity for evolution.” I wonder if there isn’t also another problem, which the idea that beauty needs to evolve belies—and that is the fact that modern and contemporary poetry and theory operate largely upon the assumption that humans today are significantly different than humans a millennium or even a few centuries ago. It can make one sick at heart to hear people talk or write about being modern (or, indeed, postmodern, or post-post...), people who seem to have gotten it into their heads that they are too advanced, or else too traumatized by a “fragmented” modern world, to experience genuine wonder in the presence of things that have always provoked that reaction in us. We are not suddenly beyond beauty—not even beauty in the same things that were beautiful four thousand years ago—are we?

CP:  No, we are not beyond beauty, whether it is the beauty of centuries ago, or of the present moment.  I’m not even sure what it would mean, to be beyond beauty—to have outgrown it?  To be somehow too wise for it?  The world may be fragmented—actually, it always has been, nothing new about that—but who said there wasn’t beauty in the shards?  I was out working in the garden yesterday, when the cathedral bells started ringing—it seemed to me a beautiful moment.  That doesn’t change the fact of suffering in the world, it coexists with that fact.  I think people worry that a concern with beauty is a form of being blind to the realities of life, modern or otherwise.  But beauty is one of those realities of life.  

LH:  All writers have precursors, aunts and uncles that they have grown up with and admire who influence their internal sense of music. You have referenced John Donne and George Herbert before as influential for your work—two uncles that perhaps show their influence most in your grappling with paradox, your devotion to mystery, and in your willingness to make authoritative statements. However, your poetic line—in its length, in its linebreaks, in its rhythm—often seems influenced by other, more recent aunts and uncles. If I were to trace a formal lineage backward, I would do so through the Black Mountain School (particularly Robert Duncan, tonally, and Robert Creeley, structurally) to William Carlos Williams. How do you tend to trace your lineage? Can you talk about particular ways the poets I’ve mentioned, or others, have influenced your work, formally or thematically?

CP:  My poetic lineage is a little uncharacteristic, I think.  The writers you mention—Williams, Creeley, Duncan, Herbert, Donne—are writers with whose strategies I see certain affinities, but I can honestly say I hadn’t read any of them until I had already written my first book.  Actually, I had read Williams’s selected poems, and I remember being astonished that one could write about such seemingly ordinary things in a seemingly easy, clear way.  Other than that, and an addiction to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (in that order) in college, I think I had read no "contemporary" poetry.  My syntax comes, I believe, from my having studied Greek and Latin, and German—all of them inflected languages—from very early on.  I really think those languages influenced the way I think, so that my sentences tend to come out the way they do in my poems quite naturally—I don’t spend time trying to twist things around, I just instinctively hear them that way.  And the line seems to get informed by the syntax, somehow…  Thematically, I think the Greek tragedians had the most influence over me, initially—the ways in which they grapple with the irresolvability of so many kinds of human conflict—the ways in which the seemingly impossible becomes possible: murdering one’s children, say, or finding oneself married to one’s mother… Many years later, I found a used anthology of the metaphysical poets—that, and studying them with Geoffrey Hill, led to my fascination with the tension between the sacred and the profane.  But I have to admit, my interest in the sacred and profane was also something I was pondering, thanks to an unlikely combination of reading Iris Murdoch and becoming fascinated with Madonna when she first started appearing on the pop music scene.

LH:  The title poem of your latest collection, Riding Westward, describes a tragically comic cowboy, trying but failing to conform to all the clichés (“standing there, / like between his legs there’s a horse”), and singing old, well-worn songs: 
                        he starts up singing again, 
same as every night, same song: loneliness
by starlight, miles to go, lay me down by
the cool etc.—that kind of song, the kind
you'll have heard before, sure, somewhere…. 
Earlier in the poem, the cowboy writes in the dirt “lines, circles / that stop short, shapes that mean nothing.” With these references to singing and writing, it’s hard to read this poem without thinking of it as a portrait of the poet. Is this indeed a kind of portrait of the artist? Also, how does this cowboy relate to the speaker of the Donne poem (riding a horse, yes, but no cowboy) from which your poem (and the entire collection) derives its title?

CP:  Yes, I did intend the poem “Riding Westward” to be a self-portrait.  Not at first, but I soon realized I was doing a sort of self-parody, which seemed appropriate after a book of poems that spend so much time agonizing about guilt, suffering, sexual restlessness.  Contrary to what many might think, I have a sense of humor, especially about myself, and I found it amusing to do the parody.  Of course, it ends up being a little more serious at the end – and that’s when the title came to me, from the Donne poem, as you mentioned.  With that title, it seemed that the poem also became a bit of a comic way of thinking about devotion and the self – comic, in the way that Donne can be comic…  I mean for the poem to be a kind of contemporary echo of Donne’s poem, to get at the idea that the wrestling for the meaning of devotion – and the human resistance to certain kinds of devotion – are resonant in contemporary life.  For what it’s worth, whenever I imagine an alter ego for myself, it’s always a toss-up between a cowboy and a sea captain.

LH:  Many of the poems in Riding Westward seem to indicate that your poems are transitioning to a more sonnet-like form. Compared to your earlier collections, the layout of the poems in Riding Westward is often less fragmentary, there are fewer poems with short (trimeter or tetrameter) lines, and many of the poems are basically shaped like a sonnet. Now, I’m simply using the sonnet as a point of reference—I know what sonnets are, and that you’re not writing them—but I don’t think it’s insignificant that many of these poems physically look like sonnets on the page. The new poem published in this issue of Asheville Poetry Review, “Lighting the Lamps,” is a good example of what I mean: there are, the way I count them, 15 lines, which are written roughly in pentameter (give or take a beat here and there). It’s interesting in this context that the poem speaks overtly about form, about pattern:  “Doesn’t pattern require – to be seen / as pattern – not just repetition but, as well, eventually, / the interruption of it?...” Are your poems starting to interrupt the sonnet pattern?      

CP:  I think I stumbled into something different, stanzaically, when I wrote my poem “Custom,” which appears in The Rest of Love.  It’s 13-line poem, with these lines that gradually expand and then contract toward the end of the poem.  And it’s a single stanza.  After that poem, I began writing more poems around that line length, and also got more interested in the "dropped" line, where a line continues, but is broken and then dropped below.  I have become increasingly impatient with fixed stanzas, especially the short-lined tercets that I used for so many years.  None of this has been conscious, just an evolution – one that gives me hope, since I worry that my poems don’t change that much from book to book.  My obsessions, anyway, remain my obsessions.

LH: Seamus Heaney has an essay about Wordsworth and Yeats in which he describes two approaches regarding the way a poem’s music is crafted. Wordsworth, according to Heaney, allows his internal musical impulse to govern and drive his lines, so that they become mesmerizing and incantatory, whereas Yeats wrestles with that flow, struggles upstream against it. Do you feel that this framework applies to your composition process? Do you identify more with the Wordsworthian or Yeatsian approach?

CP:  Hmm, tough question. On one hand, I’d say I fall into the Wordsworth side of that description – there’s definitely an internal sense of sound or music that drives the lines into looking the way they do.  But there is a stream – not of sound, I think, but of what I’ll call moral stance, or notions of what one’s moral stance "should" be – that I am constantly wrestling with.  It has more to do with what I write about, rather than with how I write it…  Although it’s true that maybe that wrestling is partly behind the wrestling that is involved in negotiating the syntax of some of my lines…

LH: Guilt is a recurring theme in your poems, and “Hymn” (from Pastoral) is one of your poems in which the speaker feels guilt. At the end of the poem, the speaker uses the metaphor of a stone to describe his condition:
And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps
should ask pardon.

My fears—when I have fears—
are of how long I shall be, falling,
and in my at last resting how
indistinguishable, inasmuch as they
are countless, sire,
all the unglittering other dropped stones.

Guilt, here, seems an almost impossibly complex situation. There is at once guilt (“should ask pardon”), resistance to guilt (“a little bit, perhaps”), and accusation (“dropped stones” being dropped by someone, or some One). The speaker’s ambivalence raises the question of who is being addressed, and whether that “sire” is ironic, sarcastic, or utterly sincere. I think the poem’s power relies on the uncertainty the reader feels—on the simultaneity of these various attitudes. Is this part of your strategy when dealing with the concept of guilt in your poems?

CP:  Well, you give me a lot more credit than I deserve, for having a strategy at all.  I really don’t go into the writing of a poem with any strategy, except maybe that I have a line or a few words written down, and I intend to build a poem around them.  The uncertainty that you speak of – I think it’s entirely reflective of my own uncertainty, on the fact that there is a simultaneity of various attitudes inside me, when it comes to an abstraction like guilt.  I think this is the kind of thing that I must have gotten from those Greek tragedies – so often in them, guilt is without clarity, without resolution.  No one is entirely wrong, but no one can seem to do right without simultaneously causing offense.  To go back to your question, this isn’t a strategy on my part – but I do think it is an example of how a poem can have authority about an abstraction, namely, by avoiding taking a single stance on such a complicated issue…

LH: Can you talk about the speaker or speakers of your poems? Do you consider your poems to be in the voice of one consistent speaker, or does the speaker change from poem to poem? How much does this matter, one way or the other, for your writing process and for readers of your poems?

CP:  I’d have to admit that the speaker is probably almost always myself at some level in my poems, as the addressee often can be.  If there is change from poem to poem, from book to book, it’s the change that would be reflected by my sensibility as it evolves over time.  At the same time, though, I’m very conscious, at the point of revision, of the need to make sure that a reader could in a sense become the speaker, could have access to that lens and have the chance to see the world credibly through it, if only for a moment.

LH: In one of his essays, Christian Wiman discusses prose written by poets as a means—conscious or no—of staving off “silence.” Do you identify at all with this description of the function of writing prose as a poet?

CP:  No, I don’t find that my own prose is written as a means of staving off silence.  Every one of my essays has been written as an assignment given to me – a lecture I had to deliver, a request to contribute to a book on George Herbert, etc.  Far from staving off silence, I find that writing prose all but renders me silent.  I have never enjoyed writing prose, and I balk at it each time, even though I continue to say yes when asked.  Masochism, I guess.  A benign form of it.

LH: In 2000, Asheville Poetry Review printed a special issue that highlighted “10 Great Neglected Poets,” and we’re working on another one for 2010. Are there any poets from the past century or so that you feel are neglected? Why do they deserve more attention and recognition?

CP:  This may seem odd, but I think Marianne Moore is very neglected.  It’s as if people find her antiquated—and yet I find her to be pretty radical, doing what she does with syllabics, the risks she takes in terms of being so sophisticated in terms of sensibility—she risks seeming inhuman, at times…  I also think Louise Bogan is hugely neglected.  The poems are so spare, and can seem almost clever – maybe that’s what people resist, along with her underlying belief in something like true love, even as it eludes her.  

LH: Thank you for this conversation. As a parting word, can you offer us a quote from one of your favorite poets?

CP:  It’s part of a much longer line, from Howard Moss’s poem, “Rules of Sleep”:

…intimacy is only another form of separation.

A Review of Riding Westward

*This review originally appeared in Indiana Review, vol. 30 #1.

Carl Phillips. Riding Westward. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. $12.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-374-53082-2), 53 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Carl Phillips has long written poems that ignore contemporary American aesthetic doctrines, and that fact alone is heartening. He is entirely comfortable with abstraction, often building his poems on lofty language, and he is unafraid to “tell” as much as he “shows.” His poems speak in the tone of one speaking to an intimate about shared experience, without the kind of sarcasm we often call irony. Consequently, the poems tend to allude to experiences in a fragmentary way, as if the reader has prior knowledge of them and needs only small reminders. What is more, the reader is seldom sure where or when the situation described by one of Phillips’s poems is occurring. Because of these qualities, the poems in Phillips’s latest collection, Riding Westward, may at first confound readers who are used to so-called accessible poetry. In fact, “accessibility” is one of those contemporary doctrines I mentioned above—one which Phillips thankfully ignores. The following lines from “Erasure,” the first poem in the collection, are a good example of these qualities:

Above us, the usual branches lift unprophetically or not, depending:
now spears; now arrows. There’s a kind of tenderness that makes
more tender 
                         all it touches. There’s a need that ruins. Dark. The horse
comes closer. […]

Here, we have “the usual branches,” as if they are usual not only to the speaker of the poem (and to the “him” mentioned earlier in it), but to the reader as well. We have fragments of a scene: branches lifting, darkness, a horse referred to with a definite article as if we already knew it was there—but the scene remains fragmentary throughout the poem, and we never quite know where or when we are situated. The above lines also illustrate Phillips’s propensity to “tell” as well as “show,” his refusal to shirk from making authoritative pronouncements: “There’s a need that ruins,” and “There’s a kind of tenderness that makes more tender // all it touches.” However, the tone of this poem is quite complicated, because not only are we assumed to understand this fragmentary scene, but we are presented with a speaker who makes both authoritative statements and equivocations: “the usual branches lift unprophetically or not”—in this case, an equivocation intensified by the double-negative construction. Double negatives recur throughout the collection, working as semantic counterbalances to the authoritative tone of the speakers of the poems, as their logical clumsiness has the effect of undermining what might otherwise be effortless pronouncements. 

Another potentially disorienting aspect of these poems is the fact that the titles often have nothing overtly to do with the poems or their dramatic situations. There is “Bright World,” which does not describe brightness at all, or even the world very much; there is “The Way Back,” which is about “the urge to make meaning”; there is “The Smell of Hay,” which is about memory, but mentions no situation involving either hay or the sense of smell; there is “The Cure,” which describes a dying tree, which ends up as a metaphor for history, and light falling through it, a metaphor for human lives—but no sign of a cure anywhere for the dying tree or the human lives tumbling through its branches. These are only a few examples of titles that are not linked to their poems the way we typically expect them to be, since they are not descriptive of the poems’ content. Instead, the titles function evocatively: their effect is to create mood by association. In the same way, his poems are anything but descriptive of the world or of life—they do not set out to paint a clear picture of the world or of experiences, as we have largely come to expect poems to do. Phillips’s poems are far too abstract and fragmentary to do that. But they do something equally important by letting the reader’s imagination participate more fully with the speakers of the poems. While reading this collection, one often finds oneself unconsciously repositioning oneself imaginatively in order to create, along with the poem, the story to which the poem alludes. The fact that this is effective is a testimony to the power of this collection—it is not something a lesser poet could achieve.

One way to describe Phillips’s poems is to acknowledge that they function more evocatively than descriptively. What I mean is that they are not by any means about life, which would be no accomplishment at all; rather, they are of life, out of it, and convincingly so, which is a great accomplishment indeed. His poems are informed by and allude to experience without having to entirely create or recreate experience, and this is the source of their undeniable authority. In “Turning West,” Phillips himself makes a similar distinction when he mentions “a distance like that between writing from a life / and writing for one…” (Phillips’s italics). Writing for a life might mean writing in order to have a life, to create one out of a paucity of living or being present in the world. This is decidedly not the kind of writing Phillips does. It is clear that his poems are from life. The evidence of this is the powerful effect they have on the reader who is willing to lay aside expectations for simply “accessible” poetry and who is willing to imaginatively engage, as with an intimate, in these evocative, allusive conversations.