Julia Guez on the motion and modulation in Carl Phillips’s book of poetry, Double Shadow.
“Nothing to say about the texte de jouissance,” according to Roland Barthes. “You can’t talk about it, you can only talk ‘within’ it, on its own terms.” This, I think, is a useful way to approach Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Double Shadow.
Phillips’s verse is difficult to excerpt, though. (It is almost impossible to excerpt sparingly). There are plenty of gems, of course, plenty of individual lines whose phrasing seems absolutely non-fungible.
That said, the real force of the poetry is not most apparent on the level of the line (no matter how beguiling the line may be). The real traction is in the movement within and between stanzas that create enough room to enact the “back-and-forthing” of the mind.
Unlike a more static texte de plaisir, Katherine Kurk succinctly defines the texte de jouissance as “a dynamic construction which emphasizes a verbal action and which delights in the bliss of the textual reader/writer exchange.”
The verbal “action” characteristic of a texte de jouissance is very much on display in Double Shadow. This is a poetry actively resisting stillness from the first piece forward. Every technique is deployed to oppose, and, at almost every turn, overcome fixity, a sense of stasis, a lack of motion. Even when Phillips is talking about stillness, the way he talks about stillness is stirring.
Syntax, lineation, rhythm, and punctuation compel the reader to read on and, thus, keep up his or her end of the textual bargain or “exchange.” The obligation, or rather the urge to follow the logic in the musical accumulation of phrases is particularly felt when the reader is directly addressed, as in:
There’s a field nearby. Stretch of field—
like the one they say divides prayer from
absolute defeat. Here’s where the packhorse,
scaring at nothing visible, broke its tether;
no sign of it since. You know this field:
a constant stirring inside an otherwise great
stillness that never stops surrounding it,
the way memory doesn’t, though memory
is not just a stillness,
but a field that stirs.
The through-lines in the collection, many to do with singing, seem very much to connect the song, the singing and the so-called undersong with the best—perhaps the only—form of resistance. Resistance, that is, to fear (“which is animal, and wild, and almost always / worth trusting”). Resistance as a kind of prayer (“but / to what, or whom?”). Resistance, more than anything, to stillness and forgetting.
There are double shadows throughout the collection. These are figures that appear once, then appear again modulated, if only slightly, as in the image of the circle, the wheel or the ring that often materializes the movement of the mind: “Not the pattern / of thinking, which is radial—a wheel, the light in its scattering, / water around where the diver falls—but of that / gesture that begins as memory, which is a stillness, and then / becomes remembering: so relentless / it had seemed unstoppable.”
This image, taken from “The Gristmill,” returns to a previous image that closes the piece, “Sky Coming Forward”:
for a moment, just the rings that form then disappear
around where some latest desire—lost, or abandoned—
dropped once, and disturbed the water. To forget—
then remember . . .
And the image in “Sky Coming Forward,” is the shadow of an even earlier image from “After the Thunder, Before the Rain,” that is, “Not at all like the mind / circling, ring upon ring—I can’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t / have, I’ll never again—no end, no apparent ending.”
In Double Shadow, endings are important. “Ongoingness,” that is, “an ongoingness like / that of song” is able to forestall endings in the same way Phillips’s syntax and punctuation frequently attenuate and forestall the end of a sentence or thought.
Motion, in general, undoes the fear and the finality of endings, so when history ends, myth importantly “starts / to stir.” Reflecting on the middle-to-end of his or her own biography, the speaker in “Like A Lion” concludes, “the years / of my life, reducible to a shuddering / scant reflection in a body / of water nowhere visible, stir, / stir back.” The death at the end of “Fascination” is, more than anything else, signaled by a lack of restlessness, a lack of trying, and, finally, a lack of movement (amplified by the last two lines, both of them end-stopped):
There are places, still, that
no moonlight ever quite conquers: a thickness of brush,
the crossed limbs of cathedral pines,
defend the dark,
inside which—beneath it—the trapped fox has stopped
mutilating its own body to at last get free. Has stopped trying.
Consigns the rust-colored full-length of itself to the frosted ground.
Line by line, Phillips is able to rehearse what Fredric Jameson so aptly calls “the thinking process itself, of whatever the ‘mind’ is as an activity.” Meditating on hollyhock and lantana, horses, mules, and herons, meditating on relationship, meditating on myth, history, and the weather, Phillips convincingly enacts the movement of a mind constantly devising, then, revising a sense of its own position in the world relative to “what, rather than trying to escape the mind’s grasp, / refused to leave it, instead kept changing its shape / inside it: now risk, / now faintheartedness, now / a kind of youth again, now pleasure as the effacement / entirely of what, inside us, we couldn’t bear / looking long at, no, / not a moment longer.”
Julia Guez is a Fulbright Fellow with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. Poetry and prose have previously appeared or will soon be forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, DIAGRAM and Washington Square.