Chapter & Verse

Gentle but piercing. Indirect but intimate. Languorous but lusty. Carl Phillips is a lot like his poetry.

Vladimir Nabokov kept a stack of index cards under his pillow to take advantage of insomniac moments. Saul Bellow would study the constellations through his Vermont home's skylight while soaking in the tub. Poet Donald Justice drew heavily from his piano playing, repeating the lines over and over to himself.

Every writer has little tricks. For poet Carl Phillips, it's a morning stroll through his Central West End neighborhood. Lately he's spent these walks memorizing Shakespeare's sonnets. He's particularly intrigued by Sonnet 73, which recounts the relationship between an older man and his younger lover. It's the closing couplet that most interests him:

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

On a publishing tear: Carl Phillips has authored eight volumes of poetry since releasing his first book in 1992.
Jennifer Silverberg
On a publishing tear: Carl Phillips has authored eight volumes of poetry since releasing his first book in 1992.

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

"He's basically saying to his younger lover: 'I'm in the autumn of my life,'" Phillips says, pulling his wool knit cap tightly over his head. "But I'd never noticed that the words love and leave are in the same line. That kind of thing never happens by accident in Shakespeare. It occurred to me that it's an equation: To love is to leave. As soon as you fall in love with somebody, you either have to lose them as they die or lose them as you yourself die. That's a poignant thing about love: You're committing to loss. And it's the anticipated loss that makes the 'love more strong.'"

It's not an encouraging insight, especially at nine o'clock on a winter morning. The remnants of the season's first snowfall still cling to the city's streets. By noon, the last icy mounds will have yielded to the winter sun, but it's cold now. So wrapping a scarf around his neck, Phillips zips his thin frame into a distressed leather jacket, stretches on a pair of black gloves and steps into the crisp air.

Biracial, gay and unapologetically erudite, Carl Phillips steers clear of the yammering so many of us use to smooth the rough edges of human relations. His business is wrestling significance from life's unspoken experiences, and he's always working — toggling his own tireless pursuit of meaning with the fleshy world of imperfect human emotional and sexual relations.

Sometimes these worlds collide in Phillips' poetry. Sometimes they collide while he's out walking Andy, his good-natured Golden Labrador mix.

"On the dog walk at some point, the question occurred to me: What does it matter to most people if the god Apollo ever existed?" Phillips posits. "Things are true if you want to believe they are true. It can go back to trusting in a partner: Who cares if somebody is cheating or not, if you believe they're not? If you sustain a belief in something, maybe that's enough."

Welcome to the world of Carl Phillips, in whose poetry moments are wrapped in myth, meaning is temporary, belief is often all we have, and the erotic is a force both healing and destructive.

Phillips didn't begin writing poetry seriously until after his 30th birthday, but since publishing his first collection, In the Blood, in 1992, he has been on a tear, producing seven volumes of poetry in fourteen years. He has directed Washington University's writing program for the better part of the past decade, during which time his baroque verse has garnered nominations for almost every major literary award (many of which he went on to win). In 2004 alone he published three books: Coin of the Realm, a book of essays; a translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes; and The Rest of Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry. Poetry collection number eight, Riding Westward, is out this month, and Phillips just inked a contract for a volume of selected poems in 2007.

To hear the critics tell it, Phillips is a rising star with an original voice. But Phillips — tall, timorous and self-effacing — seems immune to such blandishments. Though the big universities have come calling, he has so far avoided the nation's literary menageries, preferring to stay in quiet St. Louis and busy himself with the intricate business of writing poetry. So this morning, as on most, Phillips' loping frame may be spied snaking through the neighborhood's collection of tree-lined streets and stately homes.

Carl Phillips doesn't go to the gym. He doesn't jog, and he doesn't lift weights. He says he swims each morning while summering on Cape Cod. But he's quick to admit that's not quite right, either.

"What that really means is that I go for five minutes, dog paddle, and then I lie on the beach," Phillips says one afternoon while seated in his living room. "I'm not athletic. I hate it."

Still, at 46 Phillips remains a trim man, slightly built. He moves with a hesitant gait, walking on the balls of his feet with his head thrust forward. He dresses conservatively, with a preference for striped and solid button-down shirts tucked into faded jeans. His hair, which is beginning to recede, is cut close to the scalp.

The mixed-race son of an African-American father and a white British mother, Phillips blushes easily, lending his plump, clean-shaven cheeks a pink hue. But it is his eyes you remember best. Enormous, brown, slightly bloodshot and framed by heavy lids, they move slowly in their sockets. They scrutinize the world they encounter, and are quickly averted when their owner becomes self-conscious.

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