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This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

On Risk! Carl Phillips and the Poetry of Feeling Kirsty Gunn
Earlier this year I woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe. I lay in the dark, alert, aware of every single intake of air and its expulsion. I was alone. I was in a remote place. There was no one to take me to hospital or order a car or ambulance, and nothing I could do except lie very still and quiet until the episode passed and I could feel my body returning to its nomal resting state.

It occurs to me now, as I start to write this piece about the poetry of Carl Phillips, that those feelings I had in that faraway house, in that deep midnight of a room, reflect exactly the state I am in when reading the work of this powerfully affective writer. There’s something heavy resting on my chest; my heart rate increases. ‘The wind stirred – the water beneath it stirred accordingly’ Phillips writes in ‘Speak Low’. For long seconds I am conscious of my body and the poem that is before me in the most scary, acute, unsettled kind of way.

None of this is to say his work carries dread, of some dire warning, portent of illness or incapacity, or of an existential kind. On the contrary, these are poems filled with life, with love and sense and physicality and knowledge of pleasure. Oh, yes. Pleasure. Masses of good, bodily, emotionally charged physical pleasure. So – gardens. Trees. Men. Fruit. Animals. The light itself. The temperature… All are felt as sensation, experience, lust in the way Robert Herrick framed his lust for life in his poems, all the many minutes of it. So, ‘Having opened to their fullest, they opened further –’ we read in ‘Distortion’. ‘Now the peonies, near to breaking, splay groundward […] they’re not the not-so-lovely-after-all example / of how excess, even in its smallest forms, seems to have / its cost […] his smell / on you after, like those parts of the gutted deer that / the men bring home with them’. And, later, ‘it’s a distortion of the will / that leads to passion’ – as though the seventeenth-century poet’s same compression of time into moments of awareness and fullness gives us ‘The light at this late-afternoon hour when it works both / against and in the body’s favor’.

So yes, they make me feel thrilled to be alive, these sonnets and lyrics and odes; I am in the company of one who knows how to test feeling and feeling’s limits, to extract from targeted sensation and from involvement in the world in general the most precise and yet wildly generative, richly allusive imaginative response. In ‘All the Love You’ve Got’ there’s this:
And now, having dismissed everyone as he
wishes he could dismiss his own dreams
that make each
night restless – that same unswayable
knowledge, and
the belief in it, that he is
                    king here, which means
being a stranger, at least outwardly, to even the least
trace of doubt – after all of this, the king has stepped
from the royal tent, is walking toward the sound
of water…
And in ‘Honest in Which Not Gently’, there is ‘Panicking too late, as is / the way with panic… that feels like ritual and a release from ritual’ which makes me think also – in company with Herrick but so different from him – of George Herbert and his ‘The Pulley’, a poem about which Phillips has written, attending altogether in his verse and prose to the poetic work of that late Renaissance period and finding, in its charged ambivalences between bodily capture and soul’s flight, congruence and affiliation.1 The same pull and release function is at work in Phillips’s ‘They say language has its own sorrow / but no word for it; does this crying out maybe come close, though, / can we say it does, to have stared into the dark and said aloud, even / if quietly, Who’s there?’. The same machine that drives the verse also drives its powerful subject – ‘like being lost,’ Phillips writes, ‘but free.’

The dread I feel, then, the overwhelming sense of being enthralled by these poems, reminds me of an attack of breathlessness in the middle of the night, of being held fast, in a closed-off, timeless zone before being let go, flung back into the breathing air that is like the white space at the bottom of the page. Though it seems so startling and pressing and contemporary, the feeling might not be new to me after all. Because of Herbert. Herrick. John Donne. Henry Vaughan. How they do take their place here, bodies and souls, their sensibilities and emblems of belief and desire enmeshed within the workings of Phillips’s own exquisite poetics. There is a similar arrangement of emotion that I experience in the long seconds of my attention being fastened in place as a kind of energy kept in reserve, banked up, resisted. The air drawn out of me… but then, with the acceptance of such restriction, pleasure; release.
… Violence burnishes
the body, sometimes, though we
call it damage, not burnishing, more
as opposite, a kind of darkness, as if
to hide the body, so that what’s been
done to it might, too, stay hidden,
the way meaning can, for years, until
some pattern by which to trace it
at last emerges. There’s a rumor of light.’
     (From ‘Night Comes and Passes Over Me’)

I wonder now, whether finding escape from the self, seeking it out, unable perhaps to attain it but then
discovering it freely given, might be underpinning not only the familiar processes of religious mystical writing in so much of Carl Phillips’s work, but my own passage back into that airless night, when I was woken by suffocation into the dark. Might thinking about reading poems as being in a state of dangerous attention and bodily unease make of reader and poem the one? Entwining and unbinding, both? For I ask myself: How often, how many times in a life, does literature similarly bring this kind of utter enthralled’ness to its workings? Of course we can love, and love passionately, so much of what we read – but of that reading how much feels like physical entrapment? That attention itself might carry such risk? How often might engaging with a text feel like a fight for breath, as though the very form of the poem both restricts and yet will also offer the right to inhale, exhale – to be?

It occurs to me that this poet understands exactly what it is to test poetics in this way, taking subjects and themes that have about them their own potencies and dangers – difficult, threatening sex, bodily harm, extreme weather and suffering – but to work this volatility even deeper in, at the level of the line itself, so that it might split the entire poem open, cause the whole to implode. In ‘The Difficulty’ – a poem that actually looks like ‘The Pulley’ – the lines jag and catch: ‘It’s as if the difficulty were less what happened – / the truth presumably – than how little / what happened resembles the story / of what happened. And yet the sea / has never been an ocean’.

Some readers, I suppose, may say this kind of extremity won’t stick: to engage with a subject so fulsomely – I mean, with no hope of abstraction or counter-metaphor or alternative idea coming into view – will amount to no more than a relentless and anarchic rhythm of a machine of words playing catch and release with our responses. For so long critics thought similarly of Donne’s poetry, of course – ‘as the compass falters, stops squarely / between what’s beautiful / and what was awful’, Phillips writes in the same poem – and certainly there is no escaping, no reason given for one to lift one’s head. There it all is: In ‘Now in Our Most Ordinary Voices’, ‘a kind of shadowland that one body makes, entering / another; and there’s a shadowland the body contains always / within itself’. The spread, the weighing, in stanzas, of desires and fears and insecurities and hungers; ‘I’ll be the distance through which / the bonfire, unspecifiable, could at first be any small point / of restlessness – lit’. And how expansive that grammatically perverted arrangement of words, the chances Phillips takes to make the kind of wretched, beautiful stuff, turning the flesh repeatedly back, his subject, the object of his gaze. A catachresis of syntax, more than image. A writing about the lost and abject quality of desire, the ‘inevitability’ of it – while at the same time forcing the sometime smoothness and sometime brokenness of his metre upon us in such a way that we might think the very poem will break.

But there, from the same survey of flesh, that hefty content, decaying or not, ill or well, embellished or repellent; from the rhythms, the beats, the italics and brackets and dashes and wrecked lines… gorgeousness comes. Phillips’s risks figured as art, his wager with himself as to what a poem can contain and do, marked out in the form of the work itself: so might it be this? he writes in ‘So the Mind, Like a Gate, Swings Open’ – as in ‘not so long ago as I’d like to think, / I used to get drunk in parking lots with strangers’; or this? In ‘Foliage’, ‘Cage inside a cage inside a whispering so deep that / – And then just the two of us’. Once more, all that rest into relentlessness, freedom in restriction – Herbert again; in both these poems, the line breaks threatening to undo all. ‘There’s this cathedral in my head I keep / making from cricket song and / drying but rogue-in-spirit, still, / bamboo’ we read in ‘And If I Fall’ – and veer, jump, are bumped off, nearly tumble. It’s hard to keep our balance sometimes, teetering on this side of the world and heaven, holding on while about to plunge into something unfathomable.

No wonder Phillips’s insistent yet hesitant poems recall that state of wild swing between flesh and spirit that made of those dramas of the seventeenth-century religious mystics a religion, with their lunge and hold, their fall and soar and many hopes of salvation. Herbert with his constricting ‘Collar’ that is only wrenched free at the poem’s end to make of escape a fresh encirclement. So in ‘And If I Fall’ I am similarly nearly captured, threatened – released at the end of the poem, maybe, but only to be forced back inside it: the penultimate line, ‘Light enters a cathedral the way persuasion fills a body’ is repeated, but this time with a killer comma inserted after ‘cathedral’, bringing the second half of the second sentence down on the whole like a portcullis, blocking out the light of the former with all the fullness and finality of the latter. Herbert’s last words from his poem, ‘My Lord’, a distant echo here.

So too, in Phillips’s body of work, are Vaughan’s flights of the soul captured, the wings pinioned – ‘About what’s past, Hold on when you can, I used to say’, in ‘Wild Is the Wind’ – and also freed. ‘And when you can’t, let go…’ Donne’s restrictions of light and movement is also here – ‘Not because there was nothing to say, or we / didn’t want to – we just stopped speaking / entirely’ in ‘For Long to Hold’; the vicious control of the compass drawing out its circle in the blacked-out room in ‘Dominion’. So do I feel the press of the metaphysical against my ribs and heart and matter in ‘That moment each day / when the light travelling across what’s always been / mine to at any point take back, or give elsewhere / becomes just the light again, turning back to dark’.


When Carcanet published Then the War in 2022, we gained access, for the first time in the UK, to a selection of Carl Phillips’s work taken from a collection that included poems dated back to 2007 along with a brand new volume of work. I read the book through in one great piece, in the middle of another winter’s night, a small lamp at my side to light the page as though for my own tiny and exacting drama. It was exhilarating, I felt, in that spot of light, to be so constricted as I made my way through the poems, calibrating my reading experience to the physical sensation of being alone in the dark, unaided and… unwell. For yes, unwell is how I felt then, in all my excitement. That word ague, so loved by Renaissance poets, occurring to me here, to describe my condition then as it describes those days and nights and weeks much later when asthma seemed to smother me. Ague, as in ‘a burning fever, a swelling on the spleen’ (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary), Burton’s melancholies let loose, but also Donne’s chattering fits and sicknesses, his shakes. It was as though my reading eye was all I possessed as certainty in that space of time of turning pages, one by one; my body in a clamp – the same weight on the chest as I felt when I woke alone, on another faraway night much later, opening my mouth like a fish brought up out of a black sea into air and finding only airlessness. There was the same terrifying exhale and attempt to inhale. The same body clocking every second – just as this glorious poetry has me clocking every line now: Tick, tick. Take a breath. Tick, tick. And another. I read ‘… the self that is partly the animal you have always wanted to be’, in ‘Gold Leaf’, and ‘rescued you from becoming’. Self-consciousness as respiration, then! Ague, asthma and fear of death as a way of staying alive!

‘Remind me to show you where the horses finally got freed / for good’ Phillips writes in ‘Pale Colors in a Tall Field’. Though ‘– not for the freedom of it, or anything like, / beauty, though their running was for sure a loveliness, I’m / thinking more how there’s a kind of violence to re-entering / unexpectedly a space we never meant to leave’.


Anyone who has asthma has to go to the doctor to talk about these kinds of night terrors, and the first thing the doctor will do is ask you to pull up your shirt so that they can clamp a stethoscope to your back and listen to the inside body rattling through its measures. Breathe in, the doctor says. Now out. Now in. Out. As Carl Phillips writes it, all is in the pull and the letting out. The inhale. Exhale. Let this… here… be this… now… and this. Listen to the heart. The doctor gives a prescription, makes out a diagnosis. One breathes again, and hopes that the prescription might do.

So perhaps, at the close of this essay’s limitations, an account of text and experience caught in the predicament, I suppose, of trying to uncouple reading and the body, I want to write now that just as to start each poem by this poet is to feel the danger of not completing – in the same way as the line end might tip into nothingness, as I felt that night when I thought for a few long seconds that I was going to die, as one takes a single step forwards into the dangerous terrain of breathlessness, and another, threatened by the space that opens up between the now and the what is about to happen – one is also, for a time at least, made surely safe. I am held, contained, fastened to the inevitability of danger and risk, maybe… while at the same time fallen into the arms of risk’s lover, relief 2 – ‘when afraid’, Phillips writes, in ‘On Being Asked to Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing’, ‘what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself – give; and you shall receive’.

And really, can there be another contemporary poet about whose work I feel this way? To be so in jeopardy? I can’t remember it, the same heart race and temperature increase, panic, the walls closing in. Only the exhilaration and madness of Vaughan’s flights, and Donne’s great temperatures and loves, and Herbert’s
constrictions and fervent desires for peace that were introduced to me so many years ago and are inside me, call back to my reading of this twentieth-century poet and remind me of his ties to the world and to heaven. Because it is those same writers who brought to the page the struggle-to find in the world of the body the soul, to feel the strife of conviction, and hope, the pulse and heart and limbs and clothes of experience dressing the mysteries of the spirit, of being alive and desirous, and desperate for outcome in this life. How they and Phillips together bring from churning emotions and prayers and thought a forged, practical philosophy of love to take with us into the night, to pound out of trouble fine gold, to blow into warm flame dark hopeless dread, and to find in words something that feels precious, a valuable quality of the flesh that is soft and warm and numinous… to airy thin’ness beat.

1 ‘On Risk’ is the title of an essay that was the first thing by Carl Phillips that I ever read – before I met his poetry. It is in a collection called ‘The Art of Daring’. He also writes essays on the poems and work of the Renaissance poets mentioned in this essay, in which he gives sustained and meticulous close readings of metaphor, theme and treatment of subject as well as line breaks.

2 The essay by Carl Phillips referred to here contains so much of this theme, set out so dangerously and provocatively and creatively that I immediately wanted it to appear as a core text for a poetics class, until my co-teacher and Imagined Spaces director, colleague and friend, Gail Low, counselled me against it. That word ‘trigger’ was used. Shortly after, we were asked to present all our teaching texts for scrutiny in advance of a new term beginning. At which point I ceased teaching classes at that university.

This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

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