“Sometimes the thought that I’m doomed / to fail – that the body is – keeps me almost steady,” – Carl Phillips
Thus writes Carl Phillips in “Stray,” one of two recent pieces by the poet that have appeared in the March 2016 issue of Poetry. Indeed, the flux between states of balance and imbalance is recurring sentiment in Phillips’ work, the movement between states.
“Stray” in many ways embodies this theme, as the speaker of the piece is, through the course of the poem, ‘straying’ from the present day “drugs and the loud music” of an apartment complex to the “boys’ grammar school” it was built over, to “the convent, / the only remains of which, ornamenting the far parking lot, / is a marble pedestal” even further back. Phillips, through the speaker, brings his audience through the temporal architecture of what is and what was “across the street,” and by returning the former “convent” to the present in the form of the ruined “pedestal,” he gives a certain structure to the world around his speaker. Time becomes a linear strand to travel along, and there is an irrefutable logic to the past. “(T)he convent” must exist so that the “boys’ grammar school” can be built atop it; the apartment complex must come after the school. For Phillips’ speaker, the past becomes as immovable as the buildings around him. Persisting into the present, the speaker of the poem is situated temporally in proximity to the “marble pedestal” of the past and the italicized screams of the present. Time, as much as emotion in the piece, becomes something existing between two poles to ‘stray’ from.
Phillips’ speakers often find themselves existing primarily in relation to the fixed, or also changing, things around them, even people. Often people act as magnets in his poems, attracting each other at one angle, and repelling one another when turning a certain way. The late-night sexual encounter of “Hymn,” from his 2000 collection Pastoral, echoes this: “the stranger’s / strange room entered not for prayer / but for striking / prayer’s attitude.” The speaker and the stranger here are doomed to act through the conventions of the one night stand: contorting to fit with one another for an evening only to split apart after a brief, sexual encounter. As the speaker of “Stray” existed in a temporal limbo between past and present, the speaker of “Hymn” very much exists in the proximity of other people in the span of the poem. In the sexual encounter, the speaker’s musculature itself adjusts, “kneeling, bending, until it finds / the muscled patterns that / predictably, given strain and / release, flesh assumes;” a body literally molding itself to fit with another. Even at the end of the poem, the speaker as “a stone” exists fearfully “indistinguishable… (as) all the other unglittering other dropped stones.”
The fear here stems from the “indistinguishable,” nature of the human condition. For Phillips, existing is a sovereign act, a conscious experience distinguishable from the fellow people existing with one another. With this sovereignty, however, comes for the speaker in “Hymn” loneliness. Existence involves conformations to get closer to one another in the poem and, by the end, not rising above or falling below peers, but remaining on the same plane, “indistinguishable” from one another and all “unglittering.”
Phillips’ thought, “that (he is) doomed to fail – that the body is – (keeping him) almost steady” echoes, for me, a refrain from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), that “the end is built into the beginning.” Death is a constant that binds all human life, no matter the conditions the life comes from or the environment it is fostered in. Evoking the paradox, the ultimate failure and collapse of the body of the speaker in “Stray” is what keeps it stable in the moment, the brief window of time in which Phillips’ speaker may identify as ‘alive.’ It is in the space between the extremes of life and death that Phillips explores in his pieces, the transitions from one to another that proves that each end exists. Life cannot exist without its absence and vice versa. As he writes in “Luna Moth,” from his 1998 collection From the Devotions, “the pale of leaves when they’ve lost just / enough green to become the green that means // loss and more loss, approaching” is the shade Phillips attempts to paint in in his poetry, blending opposites to find the middle ground in which the human experience lies.
Carl Phillips is the 53rd annual Wallace Stevens Poet, and will be reading at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 22 at the Konover Auditorium at the Dodd Center (405 Babbidge Road on the UConn Storrs campus). The reading is free and open to the public.
Nicholas DiBenedetto is a senior at the University of Connecticut double-majoring in EEB (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and English. He is a member of the LRR 2016 poetry panel.