Double Shadow by Carl Phillips

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“Tell me,” Carl Phillips writes, “what is hunger, tell what it means / to have spent a life saying no to it, and emerged victorious.” The question, shrouded in a declarative statement, is characteristic of Double Shadow, Phillips’ eleventh collection, newly released in paperback from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Nominated for the National Book Award, Double Shadow is an exquisite ring of poems stark in their sparseness. They cut deep, and quick, from the very first poem, “First Night At Sea,” where Phillips speaks of

a gift to be held close to the chest, stubborn horse
meanwhile beating wild beneath it, stubborn heart,
a dark, where was a brightness, a bright where dark.

The poems may be sparse, yes—they are rarely over a page long and most often flex the lean muscle of a short line—but they contain a certain linguistic wit reminiscent, perhaps, of Williams. Here are streaming sentences full of clauses that build and build, juxtaposed against verb-less fragments landed between two full stops. Like this, the poems themselves are like double shadows, pliable things wrought from the masterful artist, a man many consider to be the reckoning force in contemporary American poetry. This accolade seems apt when reading lines like these, from “After the Thunder, Before the Rain,” where Phillips attempts to define the slippery ground between guilt and humility—

Not at all like the mind
circling, ring upon ring—I can’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t
have, I’ll never again—no end, no apparent ending.

Praise for this linguistic prowess become wit is not to say these poems are without weight. Quite the opposite. During a time when much of American poetry is criticized for being poetry lite, Phillips can move us in a single poem from complete joy to utter heartbreak. Such as here, in the ending to “Glory On”—

Whose business
but mine is it if now, when I grieve, I grieve
this way: crown in hand, little flowers of gold?

Double Shadow may be a slim volume—just over forty pages of poems—but the poems themselves hold a mystical, chiseled weight, one that can only come from a major poet like Carl Phillips, whose last book is Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006, the culmination of nine previous collections. Additionally, he has a critically acclaimed prose collection, Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry, and a celebrated translation of Sophocles’ Philocetes. Phillips is currently a professor of poetry and African American studies in a top English program, Washington University in St. Louis, and the series judge for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a post he assumed following Louise Glück’s tenure there. In short: if one hasn’t been reading Phillips for the last decade, it is high time to start. Double Shadow seems to find the poet at mid-breath, or in a time of transition where the voice may be in flux from previous work; but the watchful eye, and the careful hand that crafts these verses, is still ever-present.

The voice of Double Shadow sometimes reads (appropriately, and timely) disillusioned, but never at the cost of reaching outward in longing, like in “Night”—

The restless choir
that any human life can be, sometimes, casts forth
all over again its double shadow: now risk, and now
faintheartedness—we’re not what
either of us expected,
are we?—each one a form of disembodiment,
without the other.

And isn’t this some great Truth we can trust in? That like the broken line, or the fragmented sentence, we are disembodied without each other? Carl Phillips is nothing if not exactingly alert to the truths of our age and our bodies, of our faults and our redemptions, and of that—Art—which propels us forward.

D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry Press) and the forthcoming Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury) with Will Stockton. More from this author →