Poet Carl Phillips takes to the trees in his new book, Pastoral

Jan 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
Out of the dawn of the 21st century, Carl Phillips -- a Washington University professor and poet, a National Book Critics Circle and National Book Award nominee -- publishes his fourth collection of poems, Pastoral, a book that carries throughout its 75 pages motifs of stags, swans, arrows, woods, medieval saints and Achilles' shield. Not a reference to e-mail or phone sex or anything "virtual" to be found. Rather:

When I think of desire,

it is the same way that I do

God: as parable, any steep

and blue water, things that are always

there, they only wait

to be sounded.

And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps

should ask pardon.

(from "Hymn")

Phillips, reached on Cape Cod where he is taking a sabbatical leave, says stags and swans and woods and meadows and doves appear in his poems "out of the worst of all explanations -- they actually happened. I happen to find myself in a natural landscape a lot. Stags seem to appear."

The language he employs to describe and evoke these subjects, however, is not explained by chance experience.

"Pastoral is an old-fashioned sort of title in the new millennium," Phillips readily admits, "but I don't see these things as being very archaic. The syntax, for example, is something people think of as having a strange, archaic quality, but it seems a mirror of how I think. I'm always taken aback. It would be one thing if I used Shakespearean language. The thing with syntax is that I think it's important for language to be flexible in poetry, but it's also for it to adhere to what I think of as rules, which would be the syntactic equivalent of morality. To me, there are rules of grammar, but you can do a lot in them.

"I think of poetry as a place to preserve something -- things like language -- and maybe preserve the possibility of believing in happy endings or a peaceful psychological state. Sometimes it seems to me contemporary poetry is not doing that at all. It seems more to be content to be a mirror of the way it is in life rather than preserving a space that is still there, and would get lost if someone -- artists and writers -- don't do something to hold onto it."

Phillips has studied and taught Latin. A list of his direct literary forebears would include religious poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. Latin and religious poetry have not yet been deleted from our collective data banks, and Phillips represents past sensibilities in contemporary contexts -- not as peculiarities amid the pres-ent noise but as living and integral forms of thought that are present and retain presence.

"I dwell in Possibility," Dickinson declared, and Phillips profits from the possibilities she and others exposed, finding terrain that is still rich and unexplored.

And then I stepped inside

of weeping.

And then my hands found,


my brow,

the usual pose adopted for

disbelief when one believes

that one has failed, has

failed one's art.

(from "Clap of Thunder")

"My students get tired of my saying this," Phillips contends, "but I don't understand what the purpose is of using, in poetry, the same language you would use in daily conversation. I guess I think, well, then go out and speak to someone. But when it gets to the point of writing, that is supposed to be about possibility. It's not just a mirror, nor is poetry where you mock or destroy language in some sort of iconoclastic way."

There are plenty of folks to do that dirty business -- politicians, advertisers, technobrats. Grant poets the realm of possibility.

We cleave most entirely

to what most we fear

losing. We fear loss

because we understand

the fact of it, its largeness, its

utter indifference to whether

we do, or don't

ignore it.

(from "The Kill")

"I know reality also includes cell phones and all of that," Phillips says, "but they don't enter my own reality. I always thought it was strange when my first book came out (In the Blood, 1992) some reviewers were talking about its urban qualities and streetwise qualities. I guess that seemed fine, but I've always lived in places that are pretty natural. I'm looking out the window now, and there are woods for miles, and if the woods weren't there, I'd see the ocean. That seems a perfectly ordinary reality. Even once moving to St. Louis -- it is a city, of course -- but partly because Doug (Phillips' partner, Doug Macomber) being a landscape photographer, we go off a lot and look at other aspects and look at the landscape a lot. That changed once we did move to St. Louis, because that's when I started writing more about landscapes. There really are birds and deer and things like that around.

"I do have to say that to me a poem is a meditative space, rather than a narrative space or photographic one. It's hard for me to see as a concept for meditation the world of the computer and cell phones and all of that. It's not to dismiss all the poetry that includes those things, but it just would be unnatural to me to look there as opposed to looking at a body of water with a bird sitting on it.

"I read somewhere that pastoral verse is notorious for being an inward, elitist field. But what can you do?"


of dusk, come. Sky of songbirds,

come with it, mouths gaped not

in song but for those night-flying

insects that now, but too early, too

readily, ascend. Like everything

living, they are flawed, and they

must die. Hour when most palpable

-- the always, unspooling .... It is

why I sing for them, I think. That

it must, all of it, go. Insect. Bird.

The event between them that -- is

need until, unflinchingly, it isn't.

(from "Hour of Dusk")

What you can do is believe that no gesture is archaic. You can understand that poems begin with the writer's concern, which may then become your concern. You can accept that one reason -- archaically -- people have always gone to art is because it takes them elsewhere, sometimes into the terrain of their very selves, the regions they didn't know or avoided.

The pastoral is an endangered landscape, a troubled one, which Phillips preserves with language appropriate for it, unapologetically poetic: "At this hour of sun, in clubs of/light, in broad beams failing, I do not/stop it: I love you."

"I love you" -- another bold archaic gesture worth preserving, best kept in human places, not the hard drive.