In Double Shadow, suffering puts its hypothermic hand on the backs of all living creatures. In that sense, it might help to think of it as a spiritual book, a lyric struggle of an individual in the face of mortal suffering.
If I were to assert that the lyric tendency in poetry runs in an inverse relationship to narrative, where narrative consists of a story with a character in a place, The Rumpus’s server would, I’m sure, be overwhelmed with all three readers of this review arguing that The Rumpus’s reviewer is way off. If there’s a speaker, dude, there’s always a story. They would have a good point. Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and say that, on the lyric-narrative spectrum, Carl Phillips’s new book Double Shadow is maximum lyric, minimum narrative. Whereas a story is specific and located, Phillips’s poems, though they use specific images, live mainly in the abstract. They deal in the Big Ideas of being, love, and the suffering that is inevitable in existence. I was going to say “the suffering that is inevitable for all those who consciously exist”—all human beings in other words (although, as a high school teacher, I can think of human beings apparently existing without any sort of consciousness at all)—but then I remember that, in Double Shadow, suffering puts its hypothermic hand on the backs of all living creatures. In that sense, it might help to think of it as a spiritual book, a lyric struggle of an individual in the face of mortal suffering.
Phillips deals powerfully with other big ideas here, too. Some of what this book is about, besides suffering, includes fear; the relationship between love and sex; the relationship between love and power, and sex and power; violence of living creatures upon each other and themselves (probably the most striking image of the book comes in a poem called “Fascination,” where “. . . the trapped fox has stopped / mutilating its own body to at last get free. Has stopped trying. / Consigns the rust-colored full length of itself to the frosted ground.”); spiritual forgiveness; romantic forgiveness; rage; regret; anger; and what consolation either beauty or pleasure can offer. The more I think about it, the more I see the book as a meditation on how hard love can be, and in that sense, too, it fits squarely in the lyric tradition.
A representative poem might be “Master and Slave,” where the poet finds a moment of peace in his lover’s momentary calm and tenderness, presumably after making love. Here’s the poem, in full:
For the longest time, he said nothing. I looked
through the glass at what he was looking at: brindled
dog shaking the rain free of herself in a field of flowers,
making the colors stir where, before, there’d been
a stillness like what precedes a dangerous undertow or
a choice that, for better—and worse—will change a life
If you can’t love everything, he said
Try to love what, in the end, will matter. Not the dog,
doomed to fail, but the rain itself; the rain, getting
shaken … There are days when, almost, I think I know
what he meant by that. I can understand—I can at least
believe I do—his face, his mouth, that last time: for once,
unferocious; done with raging at his own regretlessness and confusion.
In this poem, we can see Phillips’s awareness of fleeting beauty (the dog, the glitter of raindrops around her, the flowers) and its complicated connection to emotion as in, here, threat. The lover offers a piece of wisdom that fits with the poet’s own attempts at wisdom throughout the book: You know what’s living will die. Love what you know will last—no, love the fleeting image, the pleasure it gives you. As elsewhere, Phillips is full of doubt and self-correction. Take the opening of “Clear, Cloudless”:
Tonight—in the foundering night, at least,
of imagination, where what I don’t in fact
believe anymore, all the same, is true—
When despair seems ready to overtake a poem, or a moment, it veers toward something redeeming, which turns out to be based on nothing, but then, maybe, not nothing. In “Master, Slave,” too, Phillips lets himself go with his belief, bolstered by its existence now in a poem, that he understands his lover’s briefly unferocious face. That moment of understanding is brief, but it’s the best we can expect as mortal, imperfect, fearful lovers.
Phillips’s constant doubt is emphasized in his tortuous, slightly tortured syntax. The syntax is also highly formal, with phrases like “even had there been” (4), “I wear on my head a crown / of feathers” (20), “clutching tightly to his chest” (24). Diction this heightened tends to feel put on rather than straightforward and honest, and it made me distrust the speaker at first. Eventually, though, I started to think of it as a way to resist the entropy of suffering that the book is trying to understand. I realized the almost stilted register was the speaker’s ritual for holding himself up from the blood and shit a person has to deal with every day, being alive.
The end of the book offers a redemption. It’s a relief and release as the poet lets go, relinquishing control as he’s wanted to from the beginning. To what he releases himself is unclear, or, rather, undiscovered: “As a horse in harness to what, inevitably, must break it.” In being broken, the horse is tamed, no longer panicked and fighting, no longer wild-eyed and free, and no longer fearful. This release, a sexual release as well as the release of death, is also a letting-go into the control of a power much greater than the individual. That is Phillips’s desire in this book, and the struggle is to what he should release himself—the beauty of the image? The lover? Poetic form? God, in one sense or another? The closing lines show Phillips’s formal power as they find a kind of freedom in both image and syntax: “No torch; no lantern—and yet no hiddenness, now. No hiding. / Leaves flew through where the wind sent them flying.”
Double Shadow is, as its title suggests, dark. Even harrowing. It is an über-lyric struggle to understand the interdependence of desire and pain. For better and worse, it is very much about the self, very much “traditional” lyric. It’s not the kind of book this reviewer is drawn to—it’s too grandiose, too self-serious and worried—but because the thinking in it is clearly so hard-won, and many of the lines are beautiful, I trust the insight and am impressed by the spirit that lives and creates within the struggle.