Accept Schopenhauer’s view that the world is an idea—and in these days when everything feels in flux such a notion is perhaps easier to swallow—and what poets do takes on new importance.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a good example.
Look closely and you can see major moments in US history informing his three collections. The Ground (2012) fell under in the shadow of 9/11; Heaven (2015) under the presidency of Barack Obama; and now the final part of this informal trinity, Living Weapon (2020) comes in the age of Donald Trump and COVID-19.
But though each collection can be read in context of specific eras, it is the idea of history itself—or at least an ossified sense of time and progress—that falls under siege in the latest book. Living Weapon asks us to resist the past, to imagine a different world. And key to this is the dream-will of the individual.
“We were the weapon ourselves,” Phillips declares in “Even Homer Nods.”
It’s little surprise, then, a poem called “History” makes an appearance in these pages. It begins, “It’s late. History promises you a kiss.” The conceit is a fitting device; it is a signal that time is a living, breathing thing, that society is in transition, and that the political informs experience, is embodied by people around us. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” furthers this parallel between an unstable sense of self and a boundless sense of world: “There’s the idea you should love someone— / And the idea you have fallen in love. / Both are just ideas. Both a cosmic con.” The crisis here is the sense of a questioning of everything, of infinite possibilities, of multitudinous worlds.
Yet, this questioning comes astride sacred and profane values. “We are all savages,” the poet laments in “Love Song,” inverting tropes that exclude Caliban from the table. If love is questioned in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” it comes back roaring a few pages later in “Love Song” where it is, “Not who or what you love, but that you love.” In “The Testament of Orpheus,” this emotion becomes a resource: “love is the sun’s power as it spreads.” Such power is also evident in “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet,” “Trinidadian Triptych,” and “Spiegel im Spiegel.” The opening prose poem, “1776,” asks:
Doesn’t every heart have somewhere deep inside of it a
nocturnal lover who sleeps like a cereus inside its dark-
ened core, and rises like a savage sun that crawls out
from its cave and stands tall on the horizon?
If love is interrogated so too is time in a book that draws attention to its own imbrications. “Art is made of time,” the poet also observes in “1776.” The title of “The First Last Light in the Sky” invites us to complicate tidy narratives of progression. Just as these days it can feel like one crisis after another, what might seem like an ending may well turn out to be a beginning: a “first last.” To wit, in the poem:
…on the silent horizon something
Not a sunrise rose, half itself and half
the horizon, dragging its bulk, its lights
And salts, from under shifting sheets of sea
This is a close encounter of the third kind, Spielberg-style, in which we have a shared an unknowable destiny. In “Eppur si muove” (Italian: and yet it moves) the poet declares, “Time is not time” and “We get it wrong, then right, then wrong again.” Concurrently, there is a chaffing against attempts to turn back progress, such as in “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet” where it is asked: “What comes after heaven that’s not / Heaven?”
Such allusions to the poet’s last book, Heaven, are important. In the opening poem there is “a drop of blood from the tip of Heaven’s / finger”; in “Spiegel im Spiegel” there is the idea of broken glass transforming into “a repurposed, resurfaced Heaven perhaps.” The circle of association with preceding work is completed when the closing poem notes, with pathetic fallacy that takes us back to The Ground, that “Thunder pounds the ground.”
This draws attention to a key concern across Phillips’s work: the place of the poet, the pen being mightier than the sword. Indeed, we may read the entire opening poem “1776” as a discourse on poetry itself. Though the poet paraphrases Auden in remarking “I make nothing happen,” he nonetheless observes: “I flew so high up that the sky itself ended.” Like Icarus (who makes an appearance in the famous painting by Bruegel the Elder and in the famous ekphrastic poem by Auden again), a poet’s task is at once futile and sublime. Perfectly capturing the tension between abstract ideals and the pull of the body, it is hard not to admire the flight represented by Phillip’s line: “I fought nature and descended.”
“That redacted fragment of yourself is where the poems come from,” the poet concludes.
These questions take on added meaning given how the book grapples with prescient themes. Just as we might today interpret “living weapon” as a reference to biological warfare (fears over the origins of COVID-19; the possibility of theft of a vaccine by nation-states), so too can we find the unfolding catastrophe of racism and colonialism.
Systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing critique of police brutality and abuses of power—they loom large. In “Violins” the poet concludes, “We are all in prison. / This is the lesson of the twenty-first century.” This is not just a Foucaultian notion of the machinations of state power, or of Bentham’s panoptic, all-seeing surveillance structures. It is an allusion to the disproportionate rates of incarceration of Black males. All races are implicated in such a world.
Other poems are more direct. In “Mortality Ode” there’s a jittery encounter with police officers in a retail setting. In “Obsolete Machinery” we are placed in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists staged protests in 2017. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Phillips reclaims the opening line of Williams Blake’s “London” and transplants that poem’s sense of woe (oppressions of class, religion, the ever-present threat of plague) to a specific race context. The whole poem is but two lines: “I wandered through each chartered street / Till I was shot by the police.” This abruptness contrasts sharply with Blake’s litany of discontent, drawing attention to the brutal, curt, and life-altering-moment realities created by racism, whether through microaggressions (see Claudia Rankine’s Citizen) or through Charlottesville-style mowing down of liberal enemies.
The larger colonial history that informed slavery is also a target. In Spain, a statute of Christopher Columbus causes disquiet: “Hard Columbus—gigantic and eternal, tricked out in pigeons, seagulls, verdigris, and palm trees—pointing in the wrong direction.” That direction is the path back to genocide, slavery, and imperial rule, as though the book has anticipated the current moment in which our monuments are being rightly reassessed. This is not because the poet had some crystal ball as he was penning this volume. Rather, it is because this subject matter has always been relevant, has lingered for far too long.
It turns out, then, that we must hold on to the hope of a narrative of progress if we are to change. At the same time, we should acknowledge the slow pace of transformation, the unsteady give and take of competing forces. What is a real cause for concern, however, is the notion of walls, the notion that the conversation has come to an end.
This is the terrifying evil the book unfurls. “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet” is a triptych in which Phillips declares “The world is on fire.” Technology has not so much as enhanced life but disrupted it: “There’s a screen to tell you what pleasure is, / Who pleasure is, when pleasure is and why.” Sheepishly we fall prey to forces unleashed from Pandora’s box: “This is when we discover what evil / Really is: the end of endings; the death / Of change.” Giving up, complacency, an attitude of “this is good enough, this will do.” In “Night of the Election,” it is 2016 and a celebratory dish now seems out of place, everything is out of place, “a sad irrelevance now relevant.” Trump.
To deal with this “madness over madness” we are given poetry. The book’s political and aesthetic threads thereby fuse: “Music for when the music is over / Is what a poem is.” Such poetry pushes us, in “A Tale of Two Cities,” to recover, to reimagine ideas: “There is a city above this city / And a city below this city’s sky.” Here, “We are all part / Of another life’s constellation.” The book ends with a possible antidote to the current malaise. The closing poem contains a scene where a group of footballers in Barcelona are caught in a storm and have a decision to make. “We decide to vote on whether or not to wait it out.” A democratic art, the poet says, will take us through. Come November, vote.