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Acclaimed Poet Phillips Meditates on Life

'Speak Low' by Carl Phillips (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

By Kerry A. Goodenow, Contributing Writer

Carl Phillips ’81 dramatizes the weeping of Patroclus’ horses at their owner’s death in the poem “Happiness”; “Immortal, / and yet earthbound, hovering around their disbelief, / around their instinct not to believe…” they weep without understanding, until the anguish recedes and they are returned to indifference. It is the analysis of sorrowful themes such as this, tinged with optimism, that characterizes his latest collection “Speak Low.”

In his 10th book, a collection of 38 short poems, Phillips presents a thoughtful view on the rituals that propel us through life and the ways in which we are able to break free of them.

A Harvard grad, Phillips first published his first collection, “In the Blood,” in 1992. He has since received many accolades for his work, including the Samuel Morris Prize and several fellowships. The basic human condition and its facets—mortality and sexuality among others—comprise the subject matter of much of his work.

It is fitting that the title of the opening poem, and of the collection itself, is that of a Billy Holiday song; Phillips’ words have a soothing sound but deeper purpose. A sense of self-awareness and an unabashed exploration of human emotions is present throughout the collection. There is no subject which Phillips avoids as he seeks a release of his many thoughts rooted in retrospective themes.

The challenge that ”Speak Low” presents is twofold. In creating poems as brief as he has, Phillips requires an immense amount of interaction from the reader. Patience and awareness is required from the reader, much like a serious conversation requires attention to conversation and an awareness of body language.

The second challenge comes in the intense nature of the themes which he is exploring. Phillips is asking for consideration of subject matters both abstract and frightening, but he makes the journey worthwhile.

Phillips has a tendency to refer to classical images and figures, which would be maddening if not for the notes section in the back. This handy reference provides a context for these numerous mentions of otherwise inscrutable symbols. For example, Topaz—a minor figure in ancient myth who was slain by Apollo—is the title and subject of a poem.

The majority of Phillips’ images tend to draw parallels between human nature and the natural world. Comparisons between natural events and human actions pervade the collection, as in “The Damned,” when Phillips compares the sudden flight of birds from burning brush to “shame when, from the wrong end / of a foundering argument, it at last lets go.” Of a white egret walking in the white foam of the sea, in “Gold on Parchment,” Phillips observes that “invisibility seemed a thing worth / envying”.

At other times, the beauty in Phillips images comes from his startling perversion of natural imagery. The most prominent example is in “Distortion,” where he relates the aging of peonies to “rough sex,” and the feeling of sexual possession to the possession of a “gutted deer” after a hunt.

These images, startling though they may be, constitute variations on the themes that extend throughout the collection. The sense is that, while Phillips is addressing some of the less attractive aspects of life, ultimately the world through his eyes is beautiful.

“Speak Low” follows Phillips’ trend of attention to punctuation. While certain poems, such as “The Moonflowers,” have a frustrating number of commas, throughout “Speak Low” Phillips widely employs the dash and the question mark, both of which make his thoughts easier to follow.

Phillips, in his approach to challenging subjects, has created a well-crafted collection to add to his expansive body of work. In “Speak Low,” Phillips approaches human nature as a question. He does not propose to provide an answer but rather provides an exploration of the most probing of all unknowns, as we are asked to “Just this once, / pretend none of it matters: love; death; or ambition.”

—Staff writer Kerry A. Goodenow can be reached at goodenow@fas.harvard.edu.

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