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Saturday, June 10th, 2006
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Riding Westward: Poems

by Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips Makes It His Own

A review by Jill Owens

I have great admiration for poets, like Ai or Yusef Komunyakaa, who can move swiftly in and out of personas from poem to poem, changing voices to match, but I confess that, perhaps unjustifiably, there is a part of me that warms more to poets who can use the same images, metaphors, themes, in poem after poem, book after book, in an intricate series of movements ever deeper, ever more honed, and, so, make some words, some gestures theirs, and theirs alone. Carl Phillips is one of those poets. His new book, Riding Westward, is both a culmination of issues and ideas he's been touching on for years and a more inward, dense exploration of some of these same themes. His voice carries the authoritative heft of wisdom, yet still is tinged with doubt; these are poems concerned with divinity, suffering, love, and belief.

Phillips's recurring images -- in particular trees, horses, and the sea -- both are and are not symbols ("The tree/ was itself, its branches were branches," from "The Cure"). They are figures populating a region overlapping our daily reality, which a shift in perspective, an unveiling, makes visible; the poems take place in a field of revelation. Most of his poems are, in one way or another, about love and desire (or failed love, desire gone dry), and all the vagaries of loss and passion that accompany them. As such, they are not a catalogue but an expansion, a thinking hard about things that elude rational thought (and sometimes about that process, as well, like looking slightly to the right of a star, in order to see it more clearly).

"What if difficulty turns out to have/ all along been the point, and worth everything,/ all the hurt it required of us?" Wouldn't that be a comfort, he seems to ask, and the question is both a salvation and an almost desperate attempt to find meaning where pain is more often the rule. Most poems in Riding Westward are fairly short, with inclusive, brief titles ("Translation," "Native," "Plumage"); one of the strongest poems, "Bow Down," is in three parts, and asks if we should, after all, just avert our eyes to preserve some grace: "if/ the bruise eventually undoes itself, if somewhere a kindness/ still counts as anything, let it count as kindness, why ruin it/ by saying otherwise, why even speak of it, why speak at all?"

Phillips often uses long, relaxed lines; he uses the space on the page easily and assuredly, not experimentally. The title poem, which is the final poem in the collection, shines with the power of song, and is both a conclusion and a departure from the rest of the volume. His poetry has always had confidence and grace, but in this latest volume he is reaching new heights, and these poems have the polish and poise of lasting creations, of lines that will continue to be read years from now.

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