Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips

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Yes, when I saw Carl Phillips read in a small university lecture room in Chicago, I couldn’t scribble down lines quickly enough. Dutifully I went home and pre-ordered Reconnaissance, from which he had been reading: his newest book of poems. The relief that comes from reading these poems in their context, holding them and knowing I don’t need to decipher my poor and excited handwriting, feels tangible. But perhaps Phillips would argue, there is no “rescue” (20) in this relief, no salvation or solace we’ve been told ought to emotionally follow. Instead, there is just life, continuing and diminutive, as I move my laundry from washer to dryer after I finish the book.

Yes, this, Phillips’s thirteenth collection, grapples with many of the themes seen in his earlier work, but does so with an intimate confidence that dares readers to contradict the speaker. Do you think you know what it means to suffer? To love? Or have you, reader, lost your understanding that “…there’s always a difference,// the way what we remember of what happened/ is just memory, not history exactly, and/ not the past, which is truth, but by then// who cared?…” (9).

Yes, there are many things to say about this small quote from “For Night To Fall” but I will stick to three. First, the idea of reality versus Reality is not new, but the way Phillips paints the grief and relief that comes from unraveling R/reality’s distinctions argues that this distinction is one so ineffable that it deserves more (poetic) investigation. Second, this passage is underpinned by a later poem, “For Long To Hold,” in which the speaker states “…I’ve been wrong about more than, despite/ memory, I had thought was possible…” (20). The despair in this pragmatic statement is what Phillips masters in this book: he guts you and continues on, implying formally that this is life, we must move forward, and that we do—usually without ceremony because, well “[i]n the stories it’s different” (24). Third, Reconnaissance is nearly impossible to excerpt for review; by this I mean: the poems move organically forward to expose a growing understanding and, for that, disembodying its lines seems to remove some of their impact. You find yourself underlining entire poems rather than lines. This last point, however, is the reason why I’m reviewing this book. The encouragement being: read it in its entirety.Reconnaissance  is a book that doesn’t allow for the bow-on-top endings favored, it seems, by contemporary lyric poetry and Reconnaissance does reconnoiter those traditional modes, taking from the ground—the gut—and gathering information about the human condition, as in: “…what if lingering, annihilation, regret are all this/ life’s ever going to be, a little music thrown across and/ under it…” (11).

Carl PhillipsYes, too, at the core of this small book is a pulsing examination of the constructed. Phillips pays heed to the notion that that, thankfully, our most painful sorrows and failings “…suddenly fit/ in one hand, our mistakes mean nothing” (31). And there is a thanks there, a warmth rather than a resignation that the “by-now-nearly-ritualized” (31) can only “…merely mean[sic] disappointment,/ not disaster” (24). That warmth is what propels the book forward, makes your ability to identify with the speaker something enjoyable rather than embittering. In his turning of language, his reexamination of basic terms like “reality” (12) and “patience” (32) and “vulnerability” (34) go layers deeper than what we’ve been delivered as definitions, to expose maybe not their more “naked” versions (another word he burns for the ashes), but it’s most pure version—a difference, Phillips argues there, that has been conflated. See: “Steeple” in which the speaker states “ if reality itself depended/ on a nakedness as naked as naked gets; on a faith in each/ other as mistake as mistaken tends to be, though I have/ loved the mistake of it—still do; even now…” (12) where the speaker flips the idea of mistake on its head in order to show the beauty of the negative. In the penultimate poem, the book itself reveals what its working toward: “…Any words/ left that had stood for something//still meaning, but in the way/ that moss can mean: all winter; beneath ice and snow.” (47) and Reconnaissance is that thaw, that warmth that will melt the “ice and snow” and provide us with the truest sense of meaning, both of word and of life.

Yes, I have ignored things I want to mention that also imbue this book with vigor. Delicious surprises like the tonal shift in “The Buried Life” (25)—glib, then raw—and it’s use of “we”—which recalls Frank Bidart’s work in it’s aims toward personal and universal simultaneity—but I’ll end with it’s warmth, which shines through and makes the moments of diminishment even more worth it for their emotional swoops upward. In one of the final poems, Phillips gets as close to a definition of true love as I’ve read: “…[i]f briefly I’ve cast/ the world, though, as a place you almost/ believed in enough to stay—stay/ inside of—I say it counts as magic…” (45). And, yes, this I am counting this book as magic.

Alana Folsom is an MFA candidate in poetry at Oregon State University, where she is also the Editor in Chief of their literary magazine, 45th Parallel. Her writings can be found in the Iowa Review and elsewhere. More from this author →