Carl Phillips’s Then the War

Carl Phillips’s newest poetry collection Then the War and Selected Poems: 2007-2020 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022), and is an excellent read for those who would like to become more familiar with the work that the poet has been doing for the last fifteen years. The collection starts off with a new book of poems Then the War, followed by a well-curated selected poems from his last seven books. His newest book consists of three parts; the first and third parts are poems, and the middle part is titled Among the Trees, which is a series of short prose pieces where the poet meditates on his relationship to trees, woods, and forests. The prose pieces are just as impressive as the poems; they highlight Phillips’s meditative style from a different positioning. Like his poetry, Phillips’s prose writing stems from the personal and the imaginative; it is straightforward, inspirational, and insightful. The forest is an object of his attention in these pieces and how it contains more than the natural world: “The secrecy that a forest provides makes it the perfect setting for crime. Also for intimacy, which has often been deemed a crime. It makes sense that woods and forests have long been a queer space.” Like his poetry, the prose pieces also become a place where Phillips examines queer identity from personal experience and how it relates to the forest:

It’s not just the convenience of the woods—it’s ability to conceal, to keep a secret—that makes it a likely site for sexual behavior that isn’t societally condoned. Trees are utterly natural, or the collections of trees called woods and forests tend, anyway, not to have been artificially constructed (as compared with parks and gardens). And this natural context for sexual intimacy can give, if not a sense of wholesomeness exactly, then a sense of permission, at least, to what can feel like—what we’ve been made to feel is—transgression; if only temporarily, trees erase the shame that drove us to seek hiddenness in the first place. Or if shame didn’t drive us there, a reasonable fear likely did. And then—remember?—that well-worn path where we found one another, the trees to either side like a lengthy convoy of fears that kept diminishing, the more south they shuffled—until there was no fear.

Although Phillips makes it clear that the word queer is in reference to sexuality, this passage does open up to include a vast spectrum of sexual behavior that is deemed inappropriate by societal standards. Shame and fear are what drive those with sexual inclinations that don’t fit into the standard narrative of “normal” sexual behavior to the forest, a natural space that protects and comforts, but also allows those (queer in the sexual sense and those who are sexually creative) to perform their instinctive desires without judgment. This theme, the constructed world versus the natural world and how it relates to queerness, is one that Phillips explores often in his poetry. It is through this context that a few selected poems from Then the War will be discussed in order to give readers a more nuanced view of how Phillips’s work operates within the larger poetic landscape.

“That the Gods Must Rest” is one of the first poems in the new collection and it starts out with a statement and two questions: “That the gods must rest doesn’t mean that they stop existing. / Is that true? Do you believe it’s true?” The two questions are interesting because they are essentially the same question, but the second one is directed at the person being addressed: “Do you believe it’s true?” Then the speaker continues in a prose-like meditation on the opening statement: “I could tell it was morning by all the crows rising again from that otherwise abandoned husk of a car over there—so ruined, who can tell the make of it now, what color.” The image of crows flying from an abandoned car is an example of how nature lays claim to societal objects (in this case an old car), repurposes them, and makes them functional again. However, the speaker goes deeper: “The way an unexpectedly fine idea will sometimes emerge from what looked on the outside like the mind as usual treading water was the crows, rising.” The speaker turns the crows into a metaphor for inspiration or possibly desire. The mind “treading water” is what might be described as doubt about one’s instinct which has been boxed in by societal norms. However, the whole phrase “what looked on the outside like the mind as usual treading water” also suggests that what seems like mental struggle is actually the mind freeing itself from prescribed constructs. The poem finishes in a very open-ended way: “A misleading clarity to the air, like logic: he only wants what he deserves; he deserves everything he wants ; I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.” “Misleading clarity” feels like an oxymoron, but it becomes complicated by the word “logic” so that “misleading clarity” becomes a condition where one feels like they’ve hit upon what’s right and how that sense of knowing what’s right becomes entangled with pragmatic thinking: “he only wants what he deserves; he deserves everything he wants; I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.” In this listing of statements, “he deserves,” “I deserve,” and “we deserve,” the logic of what is “deserved” becomes collective. In this sense, personal desire (the crows) becomes the “misleading clarity” springing from the car (society in a broken-down, but repurposed state). How does that relate to the initial statement? If the gods are resting, then people have to enact their own desires; it’s not something that can be prayed for. In a sense, people have to become their own gods, their own logic, and make their desires (what they deserve) a reality.

“In a Perfect World,” originally from Speak Low, is another meditative poem that examines the contrast between society, the natural world, and desire. Here is the first stanza:

Equally, the black lake that the skiff sails across,
and the skiff also. Wingbeat. A belief in evil
having not yet displaced entirely a belief in the power
to turn evil away. Laughter. Any number of small
voices in a field unfolding. Patterns like the one
where arrogance leads to shame, shame to anger,
until from anger—via the suffering called loss, called

The nature site of the poem is a lake that a small boat sails across. However, the skiff feels much like a bird in this poem, the way it “sails across” the lake, followed by the word “Wingbeat.” Also, the word “Laughter” and the phrase “small / voices in a field unfolding” also feel weightless, much like a bird flying through the air. These lighter images/phrases, however, are informed by heavier concepts: “belief, “evil,” “arrogance,” “shame,” “anger,” “suffering,” and “loss.” There is a need for the speaker in the poem to contemplate “A belief in evil / having not yet displaced entirely a belief in the power / to turn evil away” which could read as the moral conscience’s shifting goals: the need to banish sinfulness turns into the ultimate acceptance of its existence. The speaker also contemplates “Patterns like the one / where arrogance leads to shame, shame to anger, / until from anger—via the suffering called loss” which could read as the ego leading itself to its own death over and over again. These are deep, heavy spiritual concepts the speaker is dealing with, and his meditation spills over into the second stanza:

grieving for it: at last, compassion. Hoofbeat. Bluegrass.
Persuasion slowly brushstroking its way back into
what had seemed the world. A shadow prowling
the not-so-clear-anymore perimeter of Who says so?
A single mother-of-pearl stud catching parts of the light—
for now, holding them. Troy is burning. Let us
make of what’s left a sturdiness we can use to the end.

This stanza contains a sense of being grounded, if only briefly, by the result of ego death (which brings about compassion) and is paired with “Hoofbeat”—an animal that is connected to the earth, and the word “Bluegrass,” which also grows out of the earth. However, the feeling is temporary, because compassion shifts into “Persuasion” which brushstrokes “back into / what had seemed the world.” This could read as an explanation of how the pattern (or cycle) of ego death repeats itself: through the pressure to return to “what had seemed the world” which could be a particular perception of society and how the ego (or the self) functioned within it. However, the poem loses its footing: “A shadow prowling / the not-so-clear-anymore perimeter of Who says so?” This reads as the ego struggling with itself and with the blurred lines of “Who says so?” which feels much like a response to a rule or a so-called absolute truth uttered by someone who views themselves as an authority figure. It’s a skeptical question. The speaker might want to rebel, but has not undergone enough of an ego death because society needs to undergo one as well in order to reinforce the need for holistic change. It’s no surprise that the phrase “Troy is burning” appears after this metaphysical struggle; it’s a classical example of society destroying itself due to human primal instinctive desires. This poem could easily read as the speaker’s psyche breaking down as he engages with nature on a metaphysical level, but in reality, it’s more about transcendence through introspective struggle. The last line is what signals that transcendence: “Let us / make of what’s left a sturdiness we can use to the end.” The inclusion of “us” and “we” creates a collective experience, which shifts the consciousness of the poem away from the speaker’s meditative nature and toward a more universal perspective. To break down that last line further, it consists of three parts: “Let us / make of what’s left,” “a sturdiness,” “we can use to the end.” These three parts seem to point to a cycle of death and rebirth on a grander scale perpetuated by humans subconsciously as a way to evolve society and the human consciousness in order to achieve the ultimate goal—transcendence.

“Neon,” originally from Silverchest, is probably one of the most provocative poems Phillips has ever written, and it’s very fortunate for readers that it was chosen for this collection. It is a meditative prose poem that ventures into the darker realm of primal sexual/spiritual desire. Here are the first few lines: “A boy walks out into a grayish distance, and he never comes back. Anger confusable with sorrow, sorrow canceling all the anger out….” This opening line could easily generate multiple meanings for the poem, but for the purposes of this review, it’s being interpreted metaphorically as the speaker making a conscious choice to walk away from his conception of innocence. A few lines later, the speaker comments precisely on innocence: “Sometimes by innocence I think I’ve meant the innocence of carnivores, raised in the wild, for whom the killing is sportless, clean, unmetaphysical—then I’m not so sure.” Here, the speaker is trying to understand innocence on a primal level: how predators kill out of the need for survival, which could represent a type of innocence, but by nature predators are killers, so they might not embody innocence after all. The lines between nature, primal desire, survival, and innocence become entangled and blurred. Immediately after those lines, the speaker says this: “Steeplebrush flourished by some other name, lost now, long before there were steeples” and then “I think we ruin or we save ourselves.” These two lines hold a lot of tension between them because as much as the speaker wants to explore primal nature that existed before religious oppression, he’s not sure if what he wants to experience should be experienced. The statement “we ruin or we save ourselves” is weighted heavily with complexity. Did we become religious because we needed to be saved from our primal instincts, or did we ruin ourselves by becoming compliant with religious dogma? The speaker tries to answer this question with a deeply sexual image:

Comes a day when the god, what at least you’ve called a god, takes you not from behind, the usual, but pins you instead, his ass on your chest, his cock in your face, his mouth twisting open, saying Lick my balls, and because you want to live, in spite of everything, you do what he says, heaven and earth, some rain, a few stars appearing, harder, the way he tells you to, then not so hard, a tenderness like no tenderness you’ve ever known.

In this scenario, the god is a primal, pre-religious force imposing himself on human consciousness, which could be seen as fragile, innocent, and compliant: “you want to live, in spite of everything, you do what he says….” Again, this part of the poem could generate multiple meanings, but since it’s being looked at metaphorically, it’s the speaker flirting with the idea of returning to a state of pure wildness, and what that might entail. In this sense, queerness (a masculine god forcing himself on a masculine speaker) comes into full focus from a place of primal spiritual anarchy. The speaker seems to be making this statement, followed up by a question: before religion, the gods did what they wanted, with whomever they wanted, whether they wanted it nor not. Is that better? The poem doesn’t necessarily answer the question, but rain and stars appear, along with tenderness: “like no tenderness you’ve ever known.” The word “tenderness” feels related to innocence. The god, although brutal and sexual, also contains the ability to ignite tenderness—which is both innocent and intimate in nature. The poem is left open for the reader to ponder this thought: if there’s a possibility to experience that kind of tenderness, maybe the old ways are worth experiencing again.

What makes Carl Phillips a definitive poet is the fact that his poetry explores those areas of life that are not just sexual, but primal. Through nature and meditation and queerness, his work seeks to shed light on what has been suppressed or hidden through by societal forces across history. For him, a forest is a place where sexual desires can be experienced safely, but the poem itself is similar to a forest in how desire is experienced through image, meditative observations, rhetorical questions, and the imagination. One could regard Then the War as one giant forest where the reader is safe to engage with Phillips’s personal understanding of sex, nature, and the tension between the primal self and the civilized self. Phillips’s perspective as a queer poet does lend to his ability to articulate the complicated relationship between desire and logic, but it’s also his positioning as an imaginative meditative poet that shows what’s possible on a poetic level. It’s these two aspects of his poetic identity that make his work not just compelling to read but also to engage with on a deeper level. Then the War is an excellent book for those who are new to Phillips’s work; they will get a very good understanding of what he’s about as a poet. But, it’s also a good read for those who are familiar with his poetry; it brings out the various threads running all throughout his books to be examined and understood more fully. And although it’s a book that only chronicles the last fifteen years, it also shows exactly why Phillips is an established poet;  he has the ability to fuse personal and imaginative experience and bring it to life through the poetic form with consistency and strength.

March 27, 2023