The following essay by Joy Katz on Carl Phillips, whose Cortège was a finalist for the 1995 NBCC award in poetry, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.
One swampy spring night fourteen years ago, I filed with my MFA workshop colleagues into a sterile, low-ceilinged lecture room at Washington University to hear Carl Phillips read. We were all of us blurred from grading piles of student portfolios. We were dressed in shorts and limp summer skirts. There was a large crowd.
Carl tested the mike and then opened the reading with “The Compass,” a poem that would appear shortly afterward in his second book, Cortège (the collection earned a National Book Critics Circle nomination the following year, 1995).
Sometimes poems don’t “take” in a reading. For some reason, that was happening with “The Compass.” I was sitting on a rough upholstered seat that chafed against the backs of my knees. My knapsack was heavy with yet more poems to grade. I tried to listen, feeling that I was somehow at the end of a bridge that wasn’t quite finished being constructed, with Carl on the other side.
“What is lovely” the poem asks, in its last line, without a question mark. He read,
“what is lovely an arrow”
I looked at the collar of Carl’s shirt, immaculately laundered and smooth in the disorder of the end of the semester. The word “arrow” landed at my feet like a crisply folded note.
“The Compass” is one of my favorite Carl Phillips poems. I like to remember the first time I heard it for what it says about the vulnerability of any poem in a reading, about the failure of audiences sometimes and the meaninglessness of their moods. It was also a moment in time when this poet—still relatively new to teaching the workshop, having been at Wash U just a year—was about to ascend quickly in his career.
“The Compass” is composed of fragments and as such is unusual in Phillips’ work, whose preferred strategy is the sentence. Phillips, a scholar of Latin, has talked about being influenced by Cicero, who uses syntax “to snare and win permanently one’s listener.” You can see a muscular Roman sentence at work in many of the poems in Cortège, including “Domestic” and “Cortège,” and in more recent poems such as “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm.” In them Phillips uses sentences and line breaks not only to shape an argument but also to control the reader’s apprehension of an image:
The window is not the light
it fills with—has
been filling with—
What the bee ascends to.
Here the line breaks create a sense of hesitation as the poet interrupts himself, steps back, recasts. But the poem (“Anthem”) evinces no uncertainty. Rephrasing is the method by which Phillips evokes the process of reasoning. It is his way of precisely pinning down an image and, by extension, an argument. Not this, nor this, but: this.
This form of control is also—particularly when you think of Cortège, one of Phillips’ most erotic collections—a sensual catch-and-release. He sets forth a line, holds it back, gives just a bit more—and then moves on. End stop.
You can’t help but see the trapped bee, or the glass, and understand a moment of resistance, say, exactly the way the poem intends you to just then.
But back to “The Compass.” I was not ensnared the first time I heard it. Was I? I could have told you it began with a star. Afterward there had been a raven and an ox, then some other things, and an evocation of pain. The poem made a passage through suffering and ended with an arrow. The compass offered, if not redemption, direction: Go this way, forward.
Even without Phillips’ sentence structure, then, the poem’s argument was so clear it beamed into a muzzy student mind. “The Compass” is a text full of pauses and fragments, yet it is unmistakably a Carl Phillips poem, the “result of a consciousness articulating itself as only that particular consciousness can,” as Phillips himself has said about what makes a poem true and authentic.—Joy Katz