By Rowan Ricardo Phillips
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pp., $13.00)
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is quickly making a name for himself, and for good reason. His second full collection of poems, Heaven, following in the footsteps of several successful verse essays, is something of an experiment. In it, Phillips rejects anti-poetics and opts for the landscape of high art (The Odyssey, the night sky, music, the ocean, Hamlet, a mountain peak), overtly engaging such canonical poets and theorists as Wallace Stevens, Derek Walcott, and Robert Frost (not to mention Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare). The volume offers a worldlywise and humorous—yet nonetheless honestly contemplative—perspective on what poetic bliss might mean for a readership of spiritual and intellectual cynics.
One could read Heaven as a reimagining of Wallace Stevens’ most famous ideas of art. At the end of Sunday Morning, Stevens writes:
We live in an old chaos of the sun Or old dependency of day and night, Or island solitude, unsponsored, free Of that wide water, inescapable. Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about in their spontaneous cries . . .
Solitude, the creative/destructive forces of the ocean, Jove or Jupiter as the ancient arbiter of art, and the sublime forces of nature at its boundaries of earth and sky—these are the same kinds of symbols that attract Phillips. As the speaker of one his poems, reading Shakespeare, shares:
turn from the Bard, look outside, and behold
A herd of a hundred elk, surviving
The snow as they know how—being elk…
Their world othered by these austere windows
The massive seven-pointer, chin held high
To prevent his thick neck from crashing down,
Hoofs the snow and starts towards me, but then turns
To compass the valley between his horns.
This speaker recalls not only Stevens, but also many moments in Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost (think of the buck in “The Most of It,” facing the speaker who thought “he kept the universe alone”) in which glimpses of nature’s power shush the solitary consciousness of art.
Indeed, Heaven is anchored by an ars poetica, “The Beatitudes of Malibu,” which seems overtly to take on Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” On the whole the collection seems to work in a circular fashion, with “rings” of poems turning around each other (not unlike the circles of Dante’s Paradiso). The last line of the second poem becomes the title of the penultimate poem, for example, and the ghost glimpsed by Bernardo in Hamlet appears in both the sixth and thirty-sixth poems. “The Beatitudes of Malibu” occurs in the exact center. It is a sequence of eight 10-line poems which contain all of the major motifs Phillips engages through the collection (the Pacific, rock music, urban injustice, snowy peaks, and “wisdom from toga times”), and which recall, in number at least, the eight biblical beatitudes. Stevens’ influence is at the forefront here when Phillips writes:
A poem is the palm of the ocean
Closing. It or she or he is merely,
Which means it or she or he is a mar.
But a mar made up of temperament and
Tempo—the red weather in the heart.
The old hocus of this ocean’s focus
On pulling its waves over the soft surf
Like a skin pulled down tight over the top
Of a drum was, to her, a new hocus. . .
It was the eight day of creation
In the eighth line of a poem—she sang,
She didn’t sing, the sea sang, then stopped.
Who doesn’t hear Stevens’ poetic impulse singing “beyond the genius of the sea,” whose “mimic motion / made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, / that was not ours although we understood”? These beatitudes are tidy, intricate, introspective reflections, not the bestowal of spiritual largesse represented by the biblical beatitudes. While the beatitudes of Jesus say “theirs is,” Phillip’s say, “a poem is.” Still, they can be read as the poet offering what he has to give, with courage and generosity. Poetry is not just for the meek in spirit, but for everyone.
It is daring for Phillips so confidently to broach the language of Stevens and the scriptures, but brilliantly daring. We respond to what is familiar, and to awaken cultural memory is to strike a reader where she is, perhaps, most vulnerable and deeply moved. In this case, readers are bound to leave the poem with a gadfly in their ears, wondering why, why did the sea and singing stop at Malibu? Who or what is to blame? Phillips invites us to fixate on these questions, as he does. If we are not careful, we also may find ourselves trying to define a poem.
There is, of course, a risk in engaging poetics so overtly. Phillips has a finely-tuned sensibility, and regularly makes things individual and intimate when he senses the poems have become too abstract (“Alone in Woody Creek, Colorado, / I fell asleep reading Measure for Measure,” or, “A little later we started our day: / coffee, the paper, a shower”). But the fact is, the poems do become very abstract at times. Another one of the volume’s “rings” is formed by two poems that share the same title, “Mirror for Mirror.” In one poem, the sky is a mirror for the poet’s projecting consciousness (he sees a Rothko painting in the sky); in the other the positions are reversed and the poet is a mirror for the indifferent sky. This shifting perspective is an important part of Phillips’ project as he probes the relationship between reality and imagination, but some readers may hardly be willing to engage phrasing like “sheerest separation of is / and as: self separated from self, self / unparadised.”
On the whole, though, the poems in Heaven have enough panache to keep them just this side of pompous. They are not all Homer and Dante; they are also Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Benedict Robinson (apparently a colleague of Phillips’ whose name made it into one of his poems), World Cup fans in a botched and hilarious ethereal relationship, Led Zeppelin, and Chuck Close. One vision of heaven, for example, goes like this:
And then the doors drew back and I could see,
Scaling up the high void, plum and pear-green
Parapets, pomegranate balustrades
Portioned by molten silver trim that
Sizzled as it spiraled up and down
The skied poles like boas scoured by lightning.
No structure met them there: they just met air;
Balustrade and parapet, unseen, seen
Floating where in principle they should be,
As though they were the establishment, and
Not the embellishments. . . .
This was not a Heaven
Of my invention. And that’s what scared me:
That I didn’t make it or dream of it;
I didn’t believe in it or buy it.
And yet there it stood: the supreme city;
Feral, spurned, and up on its hind legs
Like a bear before a walker in the woods.
There’s evidence of an active wit in these lines (the clever line break just before “sizzled,” for example). While the whole concept of the poem is outrageous—heaven is an overwrought stairway leading nowhere which the poet encounters as a feral bear—Phillips pulls off the scenario, not only as a provocative moment of contemplation, but as a genuinely unsettling experience. It’s characteristic of his sense of humor to invoke Led Zeppelin alongside Shakespeare (the stairway to heaven is heaven, and not “of my invention”), but it’s also characteristic of him to speak with relish of “plum and pear-green / parapets, pomegranate balustrades / portioned by molten silver trim.” He is not one to shy away from the sumptuous possibilities of language.
Thematically, too, a poem like this raises complex questions. What does it mean for a poet to see or express something that he didn’t make or dream? Isn’t it true that when a poet describes something—scenery, say—that he’s really describing himself? Where does this “sizzling staircase” come from, if not from the mind of the poet? There is no answer inside the poem, only the poet’s suggestion that there can be, for a poet, such a thing as an encounter with something other than oneself, even if that something is absurd, extravagant, or dangerous.
So what of the collection’s title? Is heaven merely a construction of the human mind, something the poet has to take down in light of “astral ambivalence”? Is it the terrifying realm of the sublime, where Apollo skins the musical goat that brought him pleasure? Is it the uncharted ocean: pure mystery, pure death? Or is it “light / like a choir of silence” singing “the snowy mass to shine” with a “chilled dusk, / remarkable and rude,” which “runs rouge and glows / as though the blue poem of Earth desired / and became the great rose”?
Phillips, it seems, wants to encompass all of these visions of heaven. If heaven is a word for bliss of any kind, it is achieved only with anguish. Indeed, there are undertones of bitterness here, as one persona “sits in a Hawaiian shirt over a bulletproof vest / slumped in a beach chair / its back to the ocean,” and another decries humanity as “the lost note in the chord of la / Musique eternelle plus grande that was us.” The poet, craving genuine feeling, asks if he is
…condemned now by decree, like the starving bear who climbed the fence and slaughtered my neighbor’s goat, to be what the god considers free?
These poems do not “believe” in themselves any more than their speakers believe in eternity beyond the world of poem. Yet even as the poems stare down the dark side of the sublime, or imbue, against their better judgement, dreams, landscapes, and lived moments with meaning, the prevailing tone is still one of nuanced joy in the power of poetics. No cynicism in the world can take away “the great rose poem,” or the “red weather in the heart.”
As a poet, Phillips is witty, daring, and overwhelmingly hopeful—but not wholly unapologetic. Boredom is a recurring theme in Heaven, as though he knows he’s risking something in revisiting ancient material and in his tendency to favor the collective imagination over the individual. The song of the blessed bores Odysseus to tears; the poet falls asleep reading a Shakespeare play; the night sky is something we’ve seen before, and the audience has to be urged “not to give up on it yet: the scenario.”
Be assured, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, we will not. Plenty of readers are listening to this poet, who reminds us that even as an undeniable skepticism may be justified, not only (and most obviously) toward traditional notions of heaven, but also toward the aims and ends of art, poetry is an answer to the cynic, sometimes even enough of an answer. Heaven provides an experience of going nowhere, feeling mystified, being jolted out of and falling back into reverie, and yet arriving somewhere different, fleshy, and full of joy. It is a heaven of closeness rather than distance, a heaven of revision and change, a heaven refracted in a hundred changing lights. It is a heaven all readers are invited to share.