Easily missed, the epigraph by Danial Defoe to Carl Phillips’s book “Speak Low” seems to sum up the experience of reading Phillips: “and I could feel my self carried with a mighty Force and Swiftness towards the shore a very great Way.” Phillips’s poetry is all about the duality of existence as one seeks to find their own place and their own power. The feeling of being pulled by water in the epigraph endures, but one sees that the poems do not force a single definition and the inherent internal struggle within them allows one to see this pulling force of water as both helpful and harmful: the water is just as likely to pull one to shore as out to sea. This back and forth of the poems in “Speak Low” is not incoherent, but rather, it reveals the struggle for one’s place in the world, and, more importantly, reveals the internal struggles of the poet as he moves through ideas.
There is always the risk in writing a poem to end with a period: not a period that marks the end of a sentence, but the end of an idea or thought as if there is nothing further to say on the topic. As Kenneth Koch warns, there is a tendency to end with a grand idea or a reference to the sea, but Phillips’s poems work against this trend (indeed, in “Gold on Parchment” the end of the poem turns its back on the sea) and the poems themselves are a diary of struggling with a thought or an idea. However, this “diary” never becomes prosaic because the poems risk becoming intellectual; that is, they do not grasp readers by the hand and pull them along; instead, the syntax of the poems are carefully trimmed so that the ideas are presented clearly though there is a certain ambiguity to them. This careful ambiguity is especially strong since many of Carl Phillips’s poems deal with the sensually erotic where one feels the erotic nature of the poem more fully than one sees it on the page.
Aside from this ability to question himself, Phillips has also has mastered subtly integrating questions for the reader. These minute asides that appear in the body of his poems are all the more striking as one finds themselves silently answering the question as they continue moving through the poem. The questions are almost always phrased as in “Distortion,” “Do you see that too” that is, “have you had this experience?” The reader is invited to momentarily weigh in as Phillips then continues his thought. In “Distortion,” he moves on to Augustine’s view of passion and eroticism, which is followed quickly by a rejection of the hard logic Augustine used and “falls back” to a more naturalistic view. This playing with the reader draws one further into the poem as it becomes more of a personal appeal on the part of the poet towards some idea.
While Phillips is not a confessional poet – his poems do not confess that his “mind’s not right” nor does he seem to have anything to confess – he seems more confessional than any of the “confessional” poets. It may just be how close he allows the reader to get to his mind, or it may be that he deals with the duality of the intellectual mind and the passionate body which tends towards issues that many people believe are private, but Phillips’s comes across as a very personal poet, and one, at times, feels that they are talking with a dear friend or surreptitiously reading another’s diary. It is Carl Phillips’s ability to balance dualities in experience and the mind that makes him a strong poet and it is one of the lessons that a younger poet can learn best from his poetry.