Ties That Bind

Carl Phillips tests the emotional boundaries of devotion in The Tether

To stand/unsuffering/in the presence of another's/agony is its own/perhaps difficult but/irrefutable pleasure ...."

Iowa City can have that effect on anybody.

The poetic voice in Carl Phillips new collection, The Tether, speaks coolly, wisely, from a diminished world: "The usual//stammer of heart the naïve/tend to, in the face of what finally/is only the world."

Iowa City isn't exactly a diminished world, but it seemed that way when Phillips was a visiting professor there three years ago. That stay, at least in part, was an impetus to the writing of these poems. "It was a rather troublesome stay in Iowa," Phillips says in his book-lined office at Washington University, where he is director of the creative-writing program. "It's a high-pressure place in a number of ways."

The University of Iowa is home to the mother of all creative-writing programs, but Phillips' experience there was far from arcadian, and that, along with the tests that inevitably come to a long relationship, as well as the death of a friend, provoked some rethinking of art and life on Phillips' part. "I suddenly thought From the Devotions seemed as if it were a book about devotion, but academically so. The same with Pastoral. They seemed like academic meditations on something that maybe I have danced around with. This book is more about betrayal -- it's the difference between writing aboutdevotion and being faced with the real thing, with being devoted."

For those of you who haven't been following along, book by book (five now), the trail of Phillips' poetic investigations -- "what is devotion, what is fidelity, the handling of the body vs. how we're told we're supposed to conduct the body," as the poet summarizes his themes during an interview -- the chilling tone of indifference to be found in many of the poems in The Tether (no matter how lyrical) is not his standard fare.

Phillips is a sensualist. Even as his work has turned more mindful than physical in the last few books, he's kept to the substance of being. Like Donne, like Hopkins, like Dickinson -- poets to whom Phillips is kin -- he doesn't venture too far from the physical in his metaphysical explorations. "I saw what desperate/is, what also/is faith," Phillips writes in 1998's From the Devotions, noting the nearness of the two. "The last time I gave my body up,//to you, I was minded/briefly what it is made of..." from "The Kill" in last year's Pastoral is emblematic of Phillips' perpetual inquiry -- mind and body so near, yet one seemingly wanting to devour the other. Words such as "desire," "need," "want" and "hunger" reappear in his work because they define the essential forces that drive the world -- the human and nonhuman. His poems wonder about the artist in the world, God and gods. He risks your indulgence in other archaic notions, such as love.

The qualities of Phillips' work that keep those of you who have been following along following along include the passion at the center of it all, his stubborn insistence that thinking about the things Donne and Hopkins and Dickinson thought about still has value in a world where the pastoral is disintegrating. Most welcome to faithful readers is the generosity of his vision. This is a world worth loving, and worth loving in, Phillips finds, again and again. Thanks.

So from the first stanza of his new collection, The Tether, it's apparent something is up: "with art for once//not in mind" he writes. In Phillips' previous books, art is in mind most of the time, but The Tether samples life without it. The result is a vision dispassionate, indifferent, even cruel. In the poem "The Point of the Lambs," the speaker, on a little pastoral jaunt to a sheep farm, resists touching "lambs who//besides dying, were as well/filthy," and in so doing finds himself "curbing the hand's instinct/to follow the eye, to//confirm vision." The sensualist of previous books has grown distracted, witnessing "from a great height/of air" or "indifferent to the certain//plunder." If the previous books were driven by a motion toward the other, the beloved, the world, in The Tether (at least in the first half of the book) the speaker consistently turns away.

"I guess it comes from being in a relationship long enough, too," Phillips says, considering the starker vision of these poems. "After a while it's the strain that most defines the tightness of the connection between people. After a while, relationships get tested in so many different ways -- and Iowa was eye-opening in that way, too. That seems to me to be a place where there's a lot of freedom and playing around -- for the strangest reasons, for empty reasons, to get published.

"It seems this is more a complete and true book about the connections between people."

The Tetheris organized, with few exceptions, in the order in which the poems were written, and divided into two sections, the first with poems from August-December (the Iowa period), the second from January-May (back in Missouri). "I thought these poems seemed almost diaristic," Phillips explains, "and maybe that would be the way to contain them in these sections." Structuring the book in real time also works with what Phillips says is one of The Tether's themes: "How do you make an art stripped of the trappings of art?

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