‘Double Shadow’ Presents a New Way to Pray

“No, we are not beyond beauty,” the poet Carl Phillips ’81 once said in an interview. “I was out working in the garden yesterday, when the cathedral bells started ringing—it seemed to me a beautiful moment.” This statement might capture the essence of Phillips’ 11th book of poetry, “Double Shadow.” In the collection, his prayer-like poems create a magical, paganistic landscape that seems to offer visual sublimation for spiritual struggle, neither defying nor accepting skepticism. It is as if one were to re-learn through Phillips’ mystical imagery how to pray—a new kind of prayer inspired by faith, disbelief, or even the inability to choose between the two. Through his mystical imagery, Phillips reveals the beauty of what he calls “the willingness to abandon oneself to what can’t be proven to exist.”

That Phillips’ poems resemble prayers extends beyond a simple metaphor or an analogy, to the extent that they may actually be prayers. “Double Shadow” abounds with religious allusions. The poem “Ransom,” for instance, begins with a voice chanting: “How he was carried in a ramshackle cart alongside the sea. / How he lay on his side, on a bed of straw.” The “bed of straw” seems to allude to the Nativity of Jesus, a possibility further reinforced by other direct references to Jesus in the book. Phillips frequently uses anaphora—as here shown by the repetition of “how”—which is a formal feature of many biblical prayers. Moreover, Christian symbols and concepts, such as doves, forgiveness, and gratitude, regularly appear throughout the collection.

Phillips’ imagery, however, is not exclusively Christian; in fact, it is remarkable for its mélange of Christian and pagan concepts. Though there are no direct mentions of classical mythologies, the influence of Phillips’ classicist formation—he holds an A.B. in Greek and Latin from Harvard and taught Latin for eight years after graduation—is manifest as a source of inspiration. The poem “Through an Opening,” for example, explores the interior of the head of a wind god, where a golden steeple appears amid strange, primitive images, such as a “chicken hawk,” “first stars,” and “a field on fire.” What seems to be a scene of pagan ritual, both foreign and ancient to the current Western imagination, is brought together with Christianity. Such a mixture of historical idioms removes many metrics for space and time, rendering “Double Shadow” almost a pure spiritual abstraction.

Despite the strong spiritual undercurrent present in all his poems, Phillips’ religious conviction is never firm, but always wavering. In “The Shore,” for example, Phillips paradoxically questions the nature of prayers from within the poem. He writes, “in prayer (but / to what, or whom?)” The poem is neither wholly skeptical nor trying to overcome all doubts; rather, a dreamlike uncertainty constitutes the essence of “The Shore.” An italicized whisper, which could be an auditory embodiment of hesitance, opens the poem. “Don’t be afraid—Don’t go—Passenger me back to / a land called neither Honeycomb nor Danger,” Phillips writes. It never becomes clear what could have been so fearful or what “Honeycomb” and “Danger” might suggest.

In fact, there is never an answer to anything in “Double Shadow,” especially for spiritual questionings. “Prayer … to what, or whom?” One never finds out. In place of answers, Phillips creates a panorama of visual impressions. “The Shore” closes with an image of bodies “lifting, falling, sexual, like hammers, like / a hammer thrown up into and across where sky / had begun—slowly, then more slowly—to seem / too wrecked enough already to sustain more damage.” What this intertwinement of bodies and hammers might signify, again, one is never quite sure. But such striking images, which replace both faith and disbelief within the prayer-poems, accumulate one by one to create a distinct spiritual idiom that unites the entire collection.

This spiritual vocabulary might be Phillips’ proposal for a new kind of prayer, in face of what seems to be an impasse of belief for the poet and probably for many others. Perhaps no serious reader of literature could take faith for granted nowadays, especially after the atheistic utterances of monumental thinkers like Communist father Karl Marx and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Hence he constantly expresses a nostalgic longing for the capacity to believe more readily. “Tonight—in the foundering night … where what I don’t in fact / believe anymore,” he begins in “Clear, Cloudless.” Yet his inability to believe is always countered by his inability to disbelieve, as if faith were a spiritual imperative. Phillips immediately contradicts himself in “Clear, Cloudless” by adding that what he does not believe anymore, “all the same, is true.” This conflicting spiritual state is sublimated through his mystical imagery, creating a new, multifaceted way to pray.

But all in all, if “Double Shadow” has a spiritual message, it is a hopeful one. Phillips’ visual poetry redirects the unresolved spirituality toward beauty and art, as in the moment when the cathedral bells rang across his garden, where resolution was beside the point. In the poem “Sky Coming Forward,” he asks, “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?” If the two preexisting lives are those of disbelief and faith, a third kind of spirituality burgeons in “Double Shadow”––a landscape through which Phillips’ stunning mastery of verse and imagery emanates.

­—Staff writer Shijung Kim can be reached at skim@college.harvard.edu.

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