Carl Phillips’s newest poetry collection, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) is a masterful continuation of his well-established poetic style: the meditative lyric. The author of fourteen previous poetry collections and two books of essays on the craft of poetry, Phillips is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Lambda Literary Award and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry; he has also been nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This collection explores a variety of themes: nature, memory, loneliness, shame, love, eroticism, war, and death. It also highlights Phillips’s technical strengths: line composition, compression and tension, voice and perspective, image, and the poetic turn. The work is influenced by classical history and literature, and through Phillips’s use of nature imagery and a cultivated voice, the poems in this collection maintain a wonderful sense of freshness and excel at creating a world that is both meditative and artful.
“The Last of Fanfare,” the opening poem, is one of a handful of short poems scattered throughout the collection. It is only three lines, but it demonstrates one of Phillips’s overall poetic strengths: compression. Here is the poem in its entirety:
—By fire, then, but within view of a rough sea?
Yes, he said. And: That’s perfect. And: Don’t stop.
Clouds moving behind trees in front moving
In this poem, compression points to both line and narrative efficiency. The first line is a question possibly pertaining to an execution and includes two violent images: “fire” and “rough sea.” The second line is a response that becomes erotic: “That’s perfect” and “Don’t stop,” punctuated by “And” which adds an interesting poetic flourish to the poem. The final line is pure image: “Clouds moving behind trees in front moving.” Each line enacts its own energy; each line is a clever poetic shift, but very little is presented to the reader, which makes the poem magically tense. Violence, death, eroticism, and imagism intermingle to create a scene that is brilliantly resistant to interpretation; it is a poem that shows rather than tells.
“On Being Asked to Be More Specific When it Comes to Longing” is a poem that represents the best of what Phillips knows how to do poetically. Its principal strength is its winding meditative voice guided by well-timed poetic turns. The poem consists of three stanzas that spill over into each other. Each stanza contains its own meaning but also makes a move toward deeper meaning. Here is the first stanza:
When the forest ended, so did the starflowers and wild
ginger that for so long had kept us
company, the clearing opened before us, a vast
meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an
angled argument against despair, then only weeds by
a better name again, as incidental as
the backdrop the ocean made just
beyond the meadow…Like taking
a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might
more easily disperse, we’d at least reached the point
The immediate strengths of the stanza are its imagistic elements that help set the scene: “starflowers,” “wild / ginger,” “a vast meadow of silverrod,” “weeds by / a better name,” and “ocean.” There is a wonderful image shift that happens toward the end of the stanza: “Like taking / a horsewhip to a swarm of bees.” “Horsewhip” is an incredibly surprising image and it is paired with “swarm of bees.” Both images, which borderline on violence and are metaphorical in nature, add interesting tension to the poem. Here is the second stanza:
in twilight where twilight seems most
a bowl designed to turn routinely but
as if by accident half roughly
over: bells somewhere, the kind
of bells that, before being housed finally
in their towers, used to
have to be baptized, each was given—
to swing or fall hushed inside of,
accordingly—its own name; bells, and then—
from the smudged edge of all that
seemed to be left of what we’d called
This stanza includes a major shift as it moves from primarily nature images to a meditation on bells: “bells somewhere,” “used to / have to be baptized,” “each was given— / to swing or fall hushed inside of, / accordingly—its own name,” “the smudged edge.” Through the descriptions of the bells, the poem transitions into an intensity of thought which is further intensified in another major poetic shift at the beginning of the third stanza:
belief, once, bodies, not of hunting-birds, what we’d
thought at first, but human bodies in flight,
in flight and lit from within as if
by ruin, or triumph, maybe, at having
made out of ruin a light, something
useful by which, having skimmed the water, to search
the meadow now, for ourselves inside it where, yes, though we
shook in our nakedness, we lay
naked as we’d been taught to do: when afraid,
what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give; and you shall receive.
The nature images return to the poem, and thought becomes occupied with spirituality: “belief,” “ruin,” “triumph,” “nakedness.” There is an interesting comparison between “hunting-birds” and “human bodies in flight” and in the end, the poem lands on two complex spiritual ideas. The first: “we / shook in our nakedness, we lay / naked as we’d been taught to do” is suggestive of an influential higher power. The second: “when afraid, / what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give; and you shall receive” defines faith as not only a response to fear, but an act of self-sacrifice that will yield something in return: “give; and you shall receive.” This poem, like many meditative poems, ends in a very different place from where it begins, but it also maps a journey. It leads the reader through its complex thought-trail and concludes with the open-ended final word “receive.”
“Instructions Prior” is a stand-out poem in the collection because it feels very much like a love poem; most of the poems are primarily meditative. What is even more interesting about the poem is how love is revealed through another one of Phillips’s signature strengths: perspective. Here is the poem in its entirety:
The tickseed thriving in banks like clouds beneath us
The idea of a wind
The clean commitment every instinct comes down to in the hawk descending
Actual wind, waves as waves
The idea of a body
Waves as merely interruptions for once across the lake’s flat surface
Only what you yourself mean to it, yes
Your idea of the world
The body as a shield keeping slightly at bay what it also reflects
Everything you’ve lived for
Its raised wings machete-ing the space between want and having
For hours, I lay beside him in the pear tree’s shadows, watching him sleep.
The first six lines of the poem contain images presented from a purely abstract point of view and as a result, they embody a sense of artfulness. However, the poem shifts in the seventh line as the perspective changes: “Only what you yourself mean to it, yes,” signaling a speaker who is now addressing a “you.” The lines: “Your idea of the world” and “Everything you’ve lived for” contribute to this new perspective and add another layer of meaning to the lines that came before them, which were simply imagistic abstractions. The line: “Its raised wings machete-ing the space between want and having,” continues the abstract thought-trail, but includes a hint of eroticism: “…the space between want and having.” The last line of the poem is the most poignant because the perspective shifts a third time: “For hours, I lay beside him in the pear tree’s shadows, watching him sleep.” The “I” has entered the poem and expresses a deeply erotic, but also loving moment. This poem’s shifting perspectives serves as the driving force for a lyrical journey that moves from abstract artfulness to erotic romanticism. The final images—“the pear tree’s shadows” and the image of one lover watching another lover sleep—amplify and intensify each other, allowing meaning to flow back upward into the poem, giving it its final layer of masterful complexity.
What is so captivating about Phillips’s work in Pale Colors in a Tall Field is the way he puts forth a speaker who maintains a tone of sincerity throughout the entire collection. Even when the speaker confronts difficult subjects—violence, death, regret—his voice remains humble and reverent. This tone of sincerity is a familiar aspect to Phillips’s work and is the primary literary element that gives shape to the meditative aspects of his poetry. The lyrical qualities of the work in this collection, as in Phillips’s work in general, help carry along streams of thought in a fashion that feels light and effortless even as the poems venture into dark moments. This is one of the reasons Phillips continues to be able to write the way he does; his lyrical voice is stable and flexible, allowing him to adapt to a variety of subjects within the poetic tradition. The poems in Pale Colors in a Tall Field are consistent, ever-shifting, and voice-driven, presenting a speaker who communicates from experience, acknowledging that he does not have all the answers, and is not necessarily seeking answers, but a way of understanding the world around him in its various and ever-changing forms.
April 20, 2020