The Frontier as Covered Ground

From the archives (August 29, 2016):

Review of Carl Phillips’ Reconnaissance (USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
by Ian Tan

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.

Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate”

Journeying in literature has always gone hand-in-hand with the exploration of selfhood, as the self wishes to transcend its limitations and contingencies by setting off into the unknown. A curious dialectic between loss and recovery structures the journey: one risks disappearance in order to redefine and recapture, and one necessarily intuits these redefinitions of the self to be nothing more than fragmentary and evanescent. To “find oneself” in reading would be an endeavor like this, for literature is an adventure of communication, in which everything is contested in the journey set in motion by the text. To read is to risk assumptions, feelings, and worldviews; nothing is more unsettling yet liberating than the places opened up by such an experience. It is in this sense that reading can be described as reconnaissance, a surveying at the frontiers of thought and feeling, which yields new insights and reminds us of our commonalities with others.

Carl Phillips’ 13th collection of poems patterns itself around this insight, celebrating the tension between the familiarity of the emotional terrain it treads and the poetry’s uncanny ability to uncover new ways of saying and being-able-to-mean. A keen observer of both the natural world and the secret moments of lovers, Phillips works best when he straddles the line between the concrete and the abstract, starting from a compact anecdote or a fleeting moment to build emotional resonance and implication. As these poems accumulate in force, Phillips constructs a landscape humanized by loss, regret, and abandonment. It is a landscape both intimate and public; for the pulse of human connection and betrayal, as well as the rhythm of nature, animates this landscape.

           Otherwise, what of empathy,
or any way to get there: upriver,
and then what? Leaves, or
           the burst and fall of them,
or just the stripped-by-now
branches–comes to all
           the same: false witness

“Meanwhile, and Anyway”

Reconnaissance reveals Phillips at the frontier, sounding emotional depths and testing out the best way to convey the insights gained. What this ultimately brings into focus is Phillips’ consciousness of his poetic task as the construction of a speaking voice. This voice, we hear immediately, is in continual conversation with an implied Other. It maps its meanings on the Other’s body, sometimes over-brimming with sexual energy and natural abundance.

                                                 I’ll shout the starlings
loose from the pines again. I swim the field–stitches
everywhere, your body everywhere, blue cornflowers.

“Since You Ask”

This joyous recklessness is rare in Phillips, however. More usual is a brooding melancholy. In an admirable poem in an earlier collection Discipline, the images of the “trapped hummingbird” and “staghorn sumac” suggest the same energy, but there confined by limits, which the “knife” destroys and releases. Indeed, it is this uneasy expenditure of energy that informs the implied exchanges between the speaker and his lover. Phillips invites us to consider the defenses we erect as a precondition to any meaningful form of intimacy, and love is redefined in the process of the breaking down of these barriers. “From a Land Called Near-Is-Far” begins with a sobering look at the uselessness of suffering:

           But what if all suffering is in fact for nothing–
no particular wisdom after, blooming flower-like,
blood in the water?

As is typical of the poems in the collection, Phillips never offers the reader the comfort of easy, well-surveyed answers. His speaker is involved in questioning and probing the very limits of bodily and conceptual experience. The wisdom the speaker gains in this process immediately informs his understanding of his relationship with his lover, figured in the evocative image of “Mercy” being “a cliff,” a perilous plunge into possible betrayal and abandonment, which is the price of deep, passionate love. At the end of the poem, he calls for surrender—to the unseen forces that drive two people together, and to probable destruction. It is a poem unafraid to marry intellectual abstraction with emotional precision, culminating in a tenderness that was inherent in the start, but had to be worked out through the exploratory space afforded by the poem.

Elsewhere, Phillips’ speaker evinces the dialectical play between hard-edged imagery and intangible abstraction to a varied range of effects, with different degrees of effectiveness. In the poem “For Night to Fall,” the wonderfully elusive yet specific image of the “snowy / owl becoming steadily more indistinguishable / from the winter” provides a perfect correlative for the speaker’s musings about the paradoxical impermanence of truth. By the poem’s end, Phillips builds towards a haunting revelation of personal history as figured by the dead who are close at hand. The powerfully suggestive images that arrive at the end accrue a poetic music not unlike the conclusion of James Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead.”

A different poem, “The Greatest Colors for the Emptiest Parts of the World,” is, however, less successful. The song from “a cricket box when the last / crickets have gone silent” works less well as an image for the speaker’s reflections on “longing, annihilation [and] regret.” Having started the poem with an evocative portrait of melancholy ably sustained in two stanzas, the final stanza of the poem shifts too abruptly into generalized speculation, failing to rise above sentiment. Phillips asks too much of the image, and it feels inorganic to what the poem tries to reach for.

Phillips is constantly drawn to harsh and unforgiving images from nature, not soft and beautiful ones. These inform the energies of “Stamina,” an outstanding poem in the collection, which begins with a flash of gnarly beauty:

                        Colorless birds
lift up from the snarl and
tangle of chaparral.

Putting the “speed of love” together with the “speed of life,” the poem ushers in moments of illumination that are both ordinary and extraordinary. Phillips reconnoiters the geography of the poeticized landscape, discovering the pulsation of animal and plant life underneath its surfaces:

              In these parts,
reptilian, autoerotic, that’s
how the winter works

The eroticism that he finds in nature is its life-force, sustaining creation against forces that bring ruin and destruction. The poems map this eroticism with the language of desire, strikingly conveying the necessity and urgency of the demands of the body:

Like hawks tipping, fluttering, over likely ruin–
how what looks to be patience isn’t patience
at all, more like hunger and instinct squaring
off before joining forces

“Lowish Hum, Cool Fuss”

As befits the title of the book, Phillips uses water to suggest not only the flux and uncertainty of love, but also transport and deliverance into the embrace of the beloved. It is a journey where everything is risked, with the unpredictability of the venture refined (through experience) into a sort of tentative gracefulness:

          As for Risk: I’ve held
on to him. And yes–
I still ride, though he
          moves more slowly now,
with something a bit like
the grace that, over time,
          promiscuity can seem
to bring with it


Phillips starts “Capella” with exclamatory force: “I miss the sea. I miss the storms / that stopped there.” Against the oncoming loss of his lover and the inevitable “estrangement,” Phillips sets the “flashing” of the erotic, as strong as “power itself.” The fragmentation of the language of the poem mirrors the speaker’s tussle between the need to hold on to the lover and the acceptance of departure. The intensity of the speaker’s experience as conveyed in the poem builds towards a high incantatory mood reminiscent of Hart Crane’s magnificent poetic sequence “Voyages,” itself a poem about the love Crane shared with Emil Opffer, a Danish mariner, which is transfigured by Crane’s images of the sea and voyaging:

Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise.

The emotions that bind the speaker to his male lover, a context shared by both Crane and Phillips, receive their poetic apotheosis through the rhetorical impact of both poets’ lines, which intimate no less than a secular form of rapture, readily embraced by Crane but treated more circumspectly in Phillips. Among other things, it is also Phillips’ ironic relationship to poetic tradition that illuminates the poems in the collection.

Fittingly, Phillips’ most elliptical poem “Spirit Lake” draws on the image of the lost traveler rowing his boat through darkness, forever searching and forever exiled. Water becomes a medium for the journey, pushing the speaker towards new ground without giving him assurance of a vantage point with which to survey the journey. Perhaps this aptly defines our reading of Reconnaissance: Phillips carries the reader forth, never resting on any perspective through which we can ‘grasp’ the speaker’s relationship with his lover. Love, as with any other strong emotion, resists compartmentalization.

Intense in its focus, Reconnaissance invites the reader to see the probing of the frontier as a re-exploration of covered ground, for if reading and writing are acts of reconnoitering new terrain, they bring us back to ourselves and allow us to survey what is our own differently. If some of these poems can be construed as too rhetorically self-involved, then this fault can arguably be attributed to Phillips’ attempts to redefine love through searching for new ways to articulate well-worn tropes and concepts. It is an exhilarating read, for poem after poem in the collection continually challenges and surprises. Phillips reminds us here that the best poetry often seeks out the strange in the routine, the unsettling in the quotidian. Reconnaissance calls us to journey with it, to take a plunge into unknown yet eerily familiar territory.


Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Raffles Institution. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has also written two student guidebooks on Literature texts.