It Begins to Look Like Courtesy

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Carl Phillips is a masterful maker of sweet visual dances that are never cloying.

When writing about sex, Carl Phillips has few living peers. And because he’s so good at it, he is never constricted by the subject. He recognizes that, overtly or covertly, it is always with us, and he is exquisitely expert at describing sexual longing, and the moments when sex, the act itself, or suggestions of it, heighten ordinary scenes. He’s off to an acutely layered start in the title poem of Speak Low, his tenth collection:

The wind stirred—the water beneath it stirred accordingly…
The wind’s pattern was its own, and the water’s also. The
water in that sense was the wind’s reflection. The wind was,
to the water, what the water was to the light that fell there,
or appeared to fall, spilling as if the light were a liquid, or as
if the light and the water it spilled across
                                                      were now the same.

This is sensually encompassing, natural and refined, with partner beneath the wind stirring, the words “spilling” and “spilled” almost Biblical in tone, the merging appropriately qualified, to recognize that for all one would hope of true union in the sex act, that ached-for sameness is more often than not elusive even as it is acknowledged. The second and third stanzas are equally satisfying because they, like their companion lines, can be read as a straightforward description of an appealing sight in constant motion— wind, water light. Nothing here alludes to flora or fauna because Phillips understands when to meet completion on its imagined, but no less living terms .

He is less subtle, but just as satisfying in “Southern Cross,” the next poem, which begins :

When I woke, I was still on top of him. Darkness, to
darkness. The taking of leave again until leave-taking
becomes, itself, souvenir, the only one I keep—that’s
worth keeping. See how it begins to look like courtesy,
in the right light,

                              with a little distance?

Its easy to understand why his poems are so affecting, but that makes them no less elegant, profound and aurally rich, with line breaks giving ear, eye and heart just the right amount of space to absorb his unflinching, methodically felt examinations which would seem pompous if they were less gentle, or if he did not acknowledge with such care the other actor in this naked, quiet moment.

Phillips engages in classics in ways that animate and enhance his efforts, but he is much less constricted by the so-called norms of earlier societies. The last lines in “In a Perfect World” illustrate this point:

the not-so-clear-anymore perimeter of Who says so?
A single mother-of-pearl stud catching parts of the light—
for now, holding them. Troy is burning. Let us
make of what’s left a sturdiness we can use to the end.

“Happiness,” which speaks of the tears of Achilles, and contains other ancient allusions, is as fine as all the poems with historical content in this consistent, tenderly muscular volume. It takes long-lived attentiveness, and a disciplined engagement with the material of talent, to get away with comparing rough sex to peonies without sounding insipid—those heavy-scented blossoms, so soft to the touch, so heavy-hanging when past their prime. In “Distortion,” Phillips does it, just right :

Having opened to their fullest, they opened further—
Now the peonies, near to breaking, splay groundward,
some even touch the ground, and though I do understand,
yes, that they’re the not-so-lovely-after-all example
of how excess, even in the smallest forms, seems to have
its cost, I think it anyway.

                                        I even think they look, more
than a little bit, like rough sex once its gone where, of
course it had to—do you know what I mean, his smell
on you after, like those parts of the gutted deer that
the men bring home with them, fresh from the hunt,
as if you were like that now, the parts, not the smell, I
mean as if you were all his, all you’d ever wanted to be,
and how you almost believe that?
                                        Do you see that, too?

The insistence of “Do you see that, too?” is another example of passion’s compulsion, and the piece continues, until, reading with the breath of the poet or as close to that as every syllable, every comma can possibly enable, there is more, final, irresistible insistence in “Don’t go. Let me show you what it looks like/when surrender, and an instinct not to, run side by side.”

This leaves me panting, and wanting to sing in wide voice, grateful for the opportunity to encounter a mature voice that is always restless: “I should perhaps, regret more. But it’s grown / so late : see how dark, outside?” Outside what? Is a reasonable question given that comma, but the question needs no answer other than the expanding rumination in part two : “Suspecting, even then,/ that the best way to avoid being broken by flaw would be to shape my life around it—flaw coming slowly .”

Phillips is a masterful maker of sweet visual dances that are never cloying, and “Until There’s Nothing, Just the Sea, a Sea of Leaves,” the last poem in this collection, is fresh, immediate and as kinetic as classic ballet, Les Sylphides not so much in drag as reimagined:

We’d been up to the meadow. The wildflowers that had
seemed everywhere had thinned gradually as we ascended, think
of an unbuttoned shirt falling in soft stages from a man’s back,
shoulders first, now the strength of a good arm showing more
and more—and the chest, of course—the meadow cresting

This is stunning, and like every image in Speak Low, it deserves a long, popular life. Walk away from these five lines reminded that you have just tasted a choice morsel that will expand your senses in unforgettable ways. The whole of the poem and the whole of the book deserve appreciative memory.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →