book Speak Low

reviewed by Sandy Marchetti

Published in Issue No. 145 ~ June, 2009

Speak Low is Carl Phillips at his meditative apex. The reader sits with these poems on levels both conscious and unconscious; concrete and abstract. Even when it seems Phillips is striving toward the most literal sentence he is capable of writing, the unraveling ideas of observation as symbol, aesthetic and perception arise. These are not poems to be captured back; each time the reader comes to them with a new sense of Phillips’ gently lush strokes and washes, but also of his implacable reserve and strength.

Phillips draws from poets as wide as Elizabeth Bishop, “the leaves/of the fronds dividing, re-dividing, not so much like/knowledge as curiosity, what knowing comes from,” to Sharon Olds, almost making fun of the confessional, “And the light for once/ not sexual, just light.” He calls up the voices of Octavio Paz, who says “do you hear the footsteps in the next room?/ not here, not there: you hear them/in another time that is now.” Phillips provides us the eyes to watch the unfamiliar split from the familiar in Speak Low; a way to think of another other time that is “now”–that is beauty and artifice, but also intensely cerebral. In short, the collection is a coming together of all Phillips peels back to make new.

This ability to “see” the poems on a gradation is true of meditations like “Distortion” which uses the long-line, long-stanza form that is so integral to the book. We hear at first about miraculous peonies, their beauty: “Now the peonies, near to breaking, splay groundward,/ some even to the ground.” The flowers, so heavy and bright, are what we think will dominate the poem; yet, Phillips turns, uneasy with this sensual allegory, leveling his reader with his truth:

And though I do understand,

yes, that they’re not the not-so-lovely-after-all example

of how excess, even in its smallest forms, seems to have

its cost, I think it anyway,

There are tissue paper-thin ideas of meaning in the poem, and all the poems; Phillips is so infinitesimal in his perceptive thought, we see how he embodies the talents that make him an excellent translator of poems and essayist on the art of poetry. The poet divides back onto himself, revising and adding, often through non-essential clauses, the most essential ideas. In the last line of “Distortion,” Phillips arrives in motion, sequencing, “Don’t go. Let me show you what it looks like/when surrender, and an instinct not to, run side by side.” These well wrought-sentences exemplify the brightest of Phillips’ gifts as a poet; a writer so unafraid that he accounts for every sphere of thought, in order to see what manifests itself after the initial rendering, even after the third or the fourth. He embodies the ability for decisiveness and the panoramic at the same time.

For Speak Low, Phillips pulls out his bag of tricks in their most honed form; of course we read about birds, the erotic, the vernacular and Rome. We are treated to meditations on Empire and are guided through ideas of mythology and human philosophy with the lightest, most graceful touch. The poet’s form has cycled on again, past the shorter lines of The Rest of Love, toward thick-looking poems that read as anything but, whose length keys a lushness and lightness in each breath and naturally intelligent sentence.

Even at his most daring (and baring), we are never eager to rise up against Phillips in the book; the reader is dedicated to the poet’s path and does not diverge until he/she has seen what Phillips is trying to show. In lines that seem overtly dramatic or confessional, like the end of “The Plains of Troy,” where darkness “magisterially unfurling its wings, then folding them equally around/the sleepers, the awake and restless, the freshly raped, the slain?” ends up coming out like a truth we want to know and believe in.

Some of the most shopworn images, for example, roses in the poem “Cloud Country” are made new:

Everywhere the summer roses that, after years of having

tried to train them, we’ve let run rampant, until their wildness

is what we’ve come to love most

about them, especially

now, each rose completely blown open,

And this is perhaps the I Ching for Phillips of the book: every rose, every beauty is “completely blown open” and mined for each part of what it could in meditation, in “another time that is now,” in our world, embody and, in the end, be.

Phillips says in his essay, “The Case for Beauty,” from Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry that

[Beauty] gets dismissed as naïve, or irrelevant, or somehow on the wrong side of the field on whose other side we are all assumed to have happily set up camp together…it also suggests that beauty is monolithic, one-dimensional, and finally inorganic–without the capacity for evolution, without susceptibility to time.

What Phillips has done with Speak Low is the exact opposite; he has shown us the corroded diamond, and reads us the stories of its becoming.

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Sandra Marchetti currently teaches creative writing, literature and composition at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA while completing her MFA at the same institution. She is a native of Chicago, IL and her poems have been published in The North Central Review and Tributaries. She was also honored as a finalist in Phoebe's 2009 Greg Grummer Poetry Contest.