Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Carl Phillips' "Quiver of Arrows"

Reading his poems in The New Yorker, I have always been struck by their air of quiet intelligence. When I heard him read at last year's Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival, I thought, here was the real thing. The authority of experience, thought and craft. The testing faith in language. The last three days of my spring break were spent reading his Selected Poems, Quiver of Arrows, and the experience was akin to falling in love. 

The poems describe a rich interior landscape--love, grief, reason, violence--in syntax that grows increasingly baroque in the later books. The late style of Henry James comes to mind, especially when later poems refer to the need for "fine discriminations." The complex sentences are broken up, refracted, sounded, by the use of short lines, and so the versification produces an extremely private, meditative and yet dramatic voice, a voice that weighs its sound at every turn. In some poems these discriminations could be refined into airy nothings; they don't have the grounding of novelistic plot. But the best poems qualify heartbreak into knowledge. 

Read straight through, the books also seem to develop a personal system of symbols. Besides the recurrent image of the bruise--and the magical return to unbruised flesh--other symbols like the horse and the arrow acquire complex meanings. The horse is, among many things, animal, sex, captain, the West. The phallic arrow points to the linearity of lives. The title of the collection comes from the great poem "As from a Quiver of Arrows," about the death of a friend. The poem's litany of questions enact the grief and angst of those left behind in a quiver. 

Other favorite poems are "X," "Death of the Sibyl," "Alba: Innocence," "From the Devotions," "A Kind of Meadow," "The Gods Leaving," "The Kill," "The Point of the Lambs," "As a Blow, from the West," "Late Apollo," "White Dog," "Bright World," "Forecast," and "Break of Day." The religion in many of these poems is suffused with light while acknowledging the shadows. It listens for the bell, and the dying of the bell. 

1 comment:

Nemo said...

Haven't read the new collection but in Cortege, the poem Sunday was a really a stand-out for me.