Restless: On Carl Phillips (at Boston Review)

Posted on: August 27th, 2013

“The Raft,” one of the finest poems in Carl Phillips’s latest book, begins this way:

Color of rust, russet. Color of fall. I can lay my head
on the wet sand that is nobody’s chest now—not a chest
at all—or I can lift it. Why not lift it? More fugitive than
lost, more spent than stranded, if I’ve been no stranger
to disillusionment,
nor am I enslaved to it….

The voice of the poem trembles excessively into a description of the coming of autumn—we don’t need such hints in order to know what Phillips is talking about. The voice lands on “fall” more as an incantation than as an orientation and only after trilling around two words for color.

This sense of deliberation then bleeds into the practical, but seemingly insignificant, question that follows: should the body lay the head down or lift it? The poet insists on giving both options, each of which is admittedly obvious, before making the decision. We see his fixation on all the possibilities for action, followed by an interest in taking action, represented not by taking it, but by a strangely confrontational interrogative: why not? Then not one, but three comparisons in a shortened version of Phillips’s signature syntax, nearly all the verbs translated into nouns or participles, the main verb passive, the “if” an almost invisible hinge in the middle of the sentence. It is as if nothing—not the season, nor the physical position of the body, nor the condition of the psyche—could be understood except in the presence of its opposite or absence. Whoever thought that lifting your head would be such a big deal?

read more at Boston Review