“Introduction to Carl Phillips,” Wallace Stevens Poetry Program. University of Connecticut, March 22, 2016.
The stag, because this is love poetry. A harness and a bridle. Wings, and winglessness. But it is the image of the blade, the most ancient of tools, that sings most eloquently throughout the poetry of Carl Phillips, from his most recent of thirteen books, Reconnaissance, all the way back to the first image in the first poem, of his first book, In the Blood, published almost twenty-five years ago. In that first poem, titled “X”, the blade first materializes in its most benign and domestic form: a dinner knife lain down and crossed with a fork. A well-mannered sign “to say done.”
It’s a curious image for a beginning. Of a poem, of a book, let alone the beginning of a career. Done with what? Very much done with the X of the conventional. For sure done with etiquette, as the X of crossed silverware swiftly transforms into “the newlywed / grinding next door,” into “anyone’s body,” into “whatever fence of chain-metal Xs / desire throws up,” into “your spreadeagled limbs” / into, penultimately, “”where your ass begins its half-shy-half weary dividing.” Done with etiquette, though certainly not with decorum, as that ass is “where I sometimes lay my head / like a flower.”
It’s worth considering that this evening we’re celebrating Carl Phillips with an award that bears the name of Connecticut’s Wallace Stevens. In her introduction to In the Blood the poet Rachel Hadas writes “part of the controlled power of these poems results from their reticence…” a reticence that is not, as Hadas notes, incompatible with passion. Stevens has an X too, Hadas reminds us, recalling some lines from the Stevens poem “The Motive of Metaphor:” “steel against intimation – the sharp flash, / The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.”
A standard reading of that Stevens poem is that it says: “you like metaphor in the autumn, because you cannot express yourself, except to say that the wind cannot express itself either” (to quote John Crowe Ransom) and also that we need poetry because we desire a knowing that penetrates beyond the limits of our human mind, that our most genuine joy is in those moments where we feel that though we only know in part, we are also a part of what we know (to paraphrase Northrop Frye paraphrasing Paul). Written in a different moment, embodying the experience, intellect, and intellectual tradition of being-queer and Black, Phillips’ work seems to turn this kind of knowing inside-out by affirming yes— and, we are also necessarily a part of what we do not and cannot know, including our own selves. As an alternative to that surety, to a Stevens’ absolute knowing, Phillips proposes in one of his two book of essays The Art of Daring, a “restlessness —- of imagination, but also bodily, by which I have mostly meant sexual… (a) space in which.. we can be variously lost, broken or we can summon that daring that can bring us – loss and brokenness in tow – to unknowing.”
This “unknowing” is not so much “ignorance .. as a kind of removal of all the trappings of presentation – how we present ourselves to the world – and an accompanying exposure of the usually hidden parts, what we hide equally from others and from ourselves.” This process, this cutting-away is necessarily delicate, violent, sexual, and often, in Phillips, horticultural. In “Elegy” from In the Blood the circumcision blade prunes “the delicately pared / bud of legend, a cock heavy with travel.” Nine years later in Pastoral:
I called out,
Undo me, at last
gift, any difficult
knot is – by
fingers, time, patience –
too the blade by which
-if it means
the best, the most fruit – oh,
let the limbs be cut back.
This “oh” is not so much a staged moment of awe as it is the “oh” of understanding arrived at after long and principled inquiry. If Reconnaissance is any kind of evidence, Phillips is a poet enjoying what is yielded by fingers, time, patience: a hard-earned, complex authority.
There is a kind of poetry that is terrifying to write. To consciously or half-consciously come undone, to let the controlling ego come apart at the seams. To reveal the rules you have lived by, by which you are constituted, with no regard as to whether they are beautiful or unbeautiful. It’s an act of great vulnerability and courage. Open yourself up this way day after day, night after night, and you might just summon something divine. As Phillips notes in his essay “Foliage” there are instances of oracular speech in the classical world where it seems like the sibyl is getting “fucked by a God.” Isn’t that what’s happening in Reconnaissance, in a poem titled “Discipline,” where Phillips writes “You are the knife / and also what the knife / has opened, says the wind.” What wounds here, at last, is the wound itself.
It’s my pleasure and great privilege to introduce to you Carl Phillips.