Wild Is the Wind, Carl Phillips (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
The Book of Endings, Leslie Harrison (University of Akron Press, 2017)
In the Language of My Captor, Shane McCrae (Wesleyan University Press, 2017)
WHAT CAN POETRY DO that other genres cannot? What makes it unique among the arts? What territory, however small, can poetry claim?
For one thing, there’s the line, the building block of the poem. Attention to the line—and its effects on meter, rhythm, and syntax—can make all the difference between words that sit still and words that move through the world like lightning. In any poem, the lines are there—but do they enact a meaning of their own?
Take, for instance, if Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters”:
Christ stands amazed,
Peter, two fingers raised
to surprised lips, both as if dazed.
If the lines were broken differently, we would miss the complete swap of images from Peter raising his fingers as if in benediction to his holding them up to seal his lips.
Or notice the shift in William Matthews’s “The Search Party,” which ends:
The child was still
alive. Admit you’re glad.
The first line might lead you to believe for a moment that the child was dead. The second, which can be read, “Alive: admit you’re glad,” has always interested me on its own—as counsel to celebrate our own aliveness.
Reading much contemporary poetry, lines can seem an afterthought, a mere vehicle to show off elliptical leaps that aren’t earned. But the three poets under review here have made attention to the line central to their work.
Wild Is the Wind is Carl Phillips’s thirteenth book of new poems, his fifth in ten years. Like his last few books, this one is on the shorter side, but each poem in it is a gem, some rough-cut, some polished.
The book’s concerns are his usual ones: desire, love, the soul’s restlessness, the past, power, the natural world, and the human in it. The book is prefaced with an unattributed line from the poem “Rubicon,” which appeared in his earlier collection Speak Low: “more rough, less blue, more lit, and patternless.” I take this to mean we are following that poem’s admonition about the difficulty of forgetting past wrongs, and that, as the second poem in the new book, “Swimming,” tells us, “It seems there’s no turning back.” And though he looks back, Phillips often appears to have moved beyond what troubled that past. In the poem “That It Might Save, or Drown Them,” he writes: “There’s a light that can make / finding a thing look more than faintly / like falling across it… / …I have passed through that light.”
The book dwells in the sea, and in the forest in fall, and in their intermixing. In “Crossing,” he writes:
Now that, at best, we’d rowed halfway across the woods
that we mostly thought of our lives as—despite the fact
of water—accepting our position, and understanding it,
still mattered, but not like remembering what
the point had been, why we’d set out at all, from
the very start: to release something, but what? whatever
the erotic version might be of a soul we ourselves scarce
Above us, what sang like water was
just the wash of trees, now moving, now at rest in a wind’s
disruption. A slight rustling beneath us, as of fruit unfalling
from the ground it fell to, each time we’d lift our oars
free of the waves, and steady them there, respite, shadows
in a mirror, bruises on the larger bruise of the sea’s black face.
Phillips’s ability to be so eloquent among so many commas is stunning—he seems to be spinning plates and humming Vivaldi at once. This work is a testament to the fragile hold we have on one another, our tenuous grasp of memory, and how easy it is to lose.
Throughout, moments keep passing—“Already I don’t / mean, anymore,” he says in “Several Birds in Hand but the Rest Go Free.” Even in the brief time of the poem, his thoughts have changed. His style seems to emulate the mind at work, a dog in a field going this way and that to find a scent, until at last it alights on something, sought or not, something that could bring a kind of happiness or equilibrium: “Across the field birds fly like the storm-shook shadows / of themselves, and not like birds. Never mind. They’re flying” (“Rockabye”).
Carl Phillips continues to be, along with Ellen Bryant Voigt, our foremost master of syntax. Halt and hesitation are his trademarks—delay, counter, resolve (or not). His classics background contributes to his control of the sentence, which he often suspends over several lines. See, for example, the opening to “A Stillness Between the Hunting and the Chase”:
Because there’s been trouble—but when
isn’t there?—this time to do with the people, after
years of forgetting, suddenly unforgetting that while
tribute can mean acknowledgment, respect, etc., it’s
also meant, historically, the price to be paid for
what was never freedom—it only looked like that—
the king’s mounted his horse.
While as a reader I draw most from Phillips’s subjects and gorgeous imagery, as a poet I’m most interested by his line and syntax. His great contribution to literature will be as a craftsman of the line, or more specifically, of syntax perpendicular to the line. You can see it in “If You Go Away”:
When death finds me, if there be sight
at all, let me see as the torn
coyote does, turning its head
briefly, looking not with understanding but
recognition at where the flesh falls open around
a wound that more resembles
the marsh violet’s petals, that hard-to-
detect-at-first darkening that happens—soft,
steadily—toward the flower’s throat. Why not
let go of it, I used to think, meaning that
instinct by which the body shields itself
from what threatens it unexpectedly—a fist,
the next so-called unbearable
question that’s bearable after all, voilà,
surprise … I know death’s
an abstraction, but I prefer
a shape to things, though the shapes
To my ear, his continual parsing out of phrases across his lines, the turn and turn again of his sentences and verse, are one of a kind.
His suspension and shifting of phrases can produce some stumbling blocks, as in the opening of “Gold Leaf”: “To lift, without ever asking what animal exactly it once belonged to, / the socketed helmet that what’s left of the skull equals / up to your face …” That second line is awfully hard to say, at least to me.
Near the end, in a poem called “Monomoy,” we find the quintessential Phillips:
like sacrifice—begins as a word at first, soon it’s
the stuff of drama, cue the follow-up tears that
attend drama, then it’s pretty much the difference
between waking up to a storm and waking up
inside one. Who can say how she got there—
in the ocean, I mean—but I once watched a horse
make her way back to land mid-hurricane: having
ridden, surfer-like, the very waves that at any moment
could have overwhelmed her in their crash to shore, she
shook herself, looked back once on the water’s restlessness—
history’s always restless—and the horse stepped free.
The language begins to roil as the thought is worked out, then comes out the other side in an elegant moment—not to closure, but to where, like the horse, you have a landing spot to set forth from. Much of Phillips’s work, as in this poem, is couched in the natural world, though to call him a nature poet would be misleading. Phillips is Dickinsonian—his is a lyric of the mind at work. The horses, the sea, the leaves are his bees and Amherst garden.
Leslie Harrison’s work abounds with nature, but here too, nature poet would be a misnomer. The Book of Endings, her second book, published eight years after her Bakeless Prize–winning Displacement, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award in Poetry. The book is presented as a triptych, with sections called “Left Panel,” “Right Panel,” and “Center Panel.” This book is an altarpiece.
As its title promises, the book dwells on endings and deaths, be they of cities (“Venice / will have fallen but please God not yet below the surface / another ruined thing necessary and more beautiful”) or people (“When trees are dead they are wood straight-grained / solid flesh when we die we are of what use what matter / no shelter is built of our bones”). But the primary ending of the book is the loss of the speaker’s mother. Many of the poems rail against the loss, questioning nature, God, and language itself about the heartbreak.
Harrison writes in some of the most fascinating lines I’ve read of late. Most are longer than average and proceed without punctuation, although a few break across and down the page, also without punctuation. I have often had trouble reading poems of that sort. I move too fast to the end, as with W.S. Merwin—my own fault, of course. The forced patience is rewarding, however: the lines reveal new meanings and negate old ones as they make their way.
Each title is enclosed in brackets, as if slightly ducking its head. Perhaps making the titles more prominent would have separated the poems more than they want, pulling them apart from the three-part canvas of the book. The opening poem, “[I keep throwing words at the problem because words],” lays out what we’re in for:
To list the day full of ravens and crows is to attempt
meaning as if words could mend themselves the way
the window eventually cures itself of frost I don’t know
how to make anything how to make anything better
We are given a world where ravens and crows mingle, given a first line ending “to attempt” (no conclusion may be forthcoming), and then the author’s statement that words are all she has, and words are broken because the heart is broken—what meaning could be found there? That beautiful metaphor, “cures itself of frost,” contains such a right word, cures. Can we cure death? Yes, the sun will melt the frost off the window, but it will not give the poet the words to fix the unfixable. But there will be an attempt. And then comes the line ending with “I don’t know,” a plain confession of not knowing how to make anything—poems, perhaps, or how to make anything better. Throughout the book there is a continual doubling of phrases like this, a constant amending.
The acknowledged failure of language to rectify terrible situations—like the death of a mother—is the central trouble of the book, and the loss of punctuation enforces that feeling. Of course, if you’re going to eschew punctuation, you have to control syntax to keep the poem readable. As in “[I would drive to your grave]”:
I would drive to your grave but your grave is the crash
the froth foam pebbles small rocks the sand smoothed
soothed each rising each leaving tide you lie in the ocean
the water in the waves your home the stern the back
the wake of a boat those curled white lines of leaving
The poem begins with a straightforward syntax and then proceeds to stack its predicates: crash, froth, foam, pebbles, the rocks sand smoothed, and then the line break allowing the change to be soothed by the rising and falling tide, a rocking to sleep like a mother might. Her tactic is not suspension, like Phillips, but accretion, piling on. It is this, this, now this. Like throwing dirt over an open grave.
Harrison’s first book contained three poems written in a similar accretive style. What then seemed like outliers have become her methodology of choice. What works so wonderfully is the density of language—the use of lines to make a space for words to do what poetry can do best. These are not statements that could be made in any other way—addresses to the mother, the self, to God. Like prayer, poetry contacts the inapproachable in a sideways manner.
The book’s total effect is devastating. Not only do the poems detail the ongoing heartbreak of loss, but no real resolution or peace appears at the end. The last poem, “[Nest],” feels at the start as if we might get that, with its opening declaration, “And I want to say that the heart hangs there at the end of things / wavering a little a bit unsteady this vessel … / … / I want to say hey listen to this my body is a tree full of branchings….” The speaker might be about to tell us that some sense of recovery has been felt, but no. The vessel is departing:
…the sails are going up the sun is going down the people
on shore wave small scraps of fabric they’re white in the dusk
like wings they’re white in the dark like surrender.
While there may be a letting go, I wouldn’t call it peace. Life moves on, and we surrender to it.
There is little of peace in Shane McCrae’s newest book. It is not elegiac in the manner of Harrison’s, but stinging in its look at the condition of being human in this world. In the Language of My Captor, a finalist for the LA Times Book Award in 2017, is a remarkable book for many reasons, and though I am focusing on his craft I would be remiss to not take into account his three main subjects: a man kept behind bars at a zoo; Jim Limber, the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis; and Banjo Yes, a black actor in early cinema.
Shane McCrae is hyperconscious of his lines. He often writes in iambic pentameter, but then proceeds to cut lines elsewhere and indicate the end of the pentameter with a slash, achieving a doubling effect that shifts one’s reading of the poems.
The first poems are narrated by a man imprisoned in a zoo, presumably an African man, since he refers to his family as being across the ocean. The poems give voice to a would-be slave, who is forced not to work but instead to serve as an oddity, something kept, viewed, and owned. As he tries to comprehend his situation, he understands better than his captor what it means to be human.
In “What Do You Know About Shame,” the captor drunkenly tells the captive that his wife is leaving him and he will never see his son again. The captive replies that he doesn’t understand why not.
I said there would be no
Ocean between his son and him
Between / Him and the ocean
if there were an ocean
And I said Surely I am making you
A wealthy man
you can // Afford to travel
It is a stinging rebuke, though we know it will be lost on the captor.
A series of prose vignettes is interspersed with the Jim Limber poems in a section titled “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons.” This calls to mind Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, but I am not entirely sure what to make of these pieces. An examination of the life of a young black boy raised by white grandparents in a white neighborhood, they are, in and of themselves, quite striking. (The sequence ends with the narrator discovering a mass grave in the woods of children who died in an orphanage fire: “the whole world of wrecked, and burned, and abandoned things, each trapped in the moment of its destruction, each thing preserved, both dead and outside of death, not in Hell, but in the one fire everywhere, after which there is no suffering, and so from which there is no relief.”) I felt at first that they may have been padding, as they are culled from an already published nonfiction chapbook, perhaps the result of a rush to publish more books (he has brought out five in seven years, with another due out this fall).
But, when they are intermixed with poems about Jim Limber, a son born of a slave and the president of the Confederacy, the two lives reflect off each other. I’m not entirely convinced it works; the placement of the pieces seems at once too obvious and too random. That said, by giving voice to both Jim Limber and Jefferson Davis, the new poems in this section perform an act of great empathy and exposure. In “Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Met His Adoptive Mother Varina Davis at a Crossroads,” we are told how Limber came to be in the Davises’ possession:
Up north it’s midnight in America
Here in America it’s midnight too
Daddy Jeff says he says it was always two
Americas and he just keeps it law
When white folks ask I tell them I was happy
With momma and she didn’t beat me of-
ten till the war got bad but we was going
North and I didn’t want to go the morning
Momma Varina rescued me she whups me
Different like what she wants from it is love
The iambic pentameter here is fairly strict (I count only two three-syllable foot substitutions), but McCrae lets the breaks work against the grain. (To a fault, in one place: splitting “often” where he does, it’s hard not to read “beat me off.”) McCrae’s use of metrical versification is unlike anything I have come across. While these aren’t the most euphonious iambic pentameter lines, that is not his goal. He wants to use this stricture in order to play his lines over and across it. It gives him control, but it is not controlling. In his hands it is a reimagining of the iambic pentameter line.
The Banjo Yes section gives us monologues from a black actor in early films. He tells his story in gut punches—at least it feels that way to a white reader. Black readers might just nod in recognition.
In “Banjo Yes Receives a Lifetime Achievement Award” he tells the story of how he acquired his name.
one morning and I’m just cross-
ing from one thing to the next I hear a shout
Banjo and so I lift my head but not
Too high that ain’t my name and I say Yes
[…] Is your name Banjo I
Say No sir my name’s Bill and he says Ban-
jo suits you better Banjo Yes and when
I talk to you that’s who you’re gonna be
And I say Yes sir your shoe is clean
Now listen that boy he was nobody
In fact I never saw that boy again
But that name stuck to me
and when you see / A white boy talking on the screen that’s him
And when you see me smiling back that’s me
Banjo Yes’s monologues are indictments of the treatment of black people at the hands of whites, and of white misconceptions, as in “Banjo Yes Asks a Journalist”:
I didn’t marry none of them white women
Because I was a / What did you say a free black man
Shit man if I had been a free black man
I would have married a girl from back home
Listen I do a thing to piss a white man off
I’m bound to that man’s will hell
I’m bound to that man’s pleasure
He got me on a level where he doesn’t even have to think
And all I do is think about him
tell me when have I been free
Boy write this down I’m asking
when have you not had to say / Something about white folks to say
Something about me
These are the last words we hear from Banjo Yes, and they say it all—about where we’ve arrived as a culture in discussing racial relations. For whites, things are a given. There is no need to qualify. For people of color, everything is in relation to whites—even that phrase “of color” is relational.
The fourth section functions as a kind of coda, revisiting the characters of the previous three, including the author. In the book’s closing poem, “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face,” on a beach with his daughter, he asks if she sees what looks like an old man’s face in the waves:
the old man his
White his face crumbling it looks
as old as he’s as old as
The ocean looks
and for a moment almost looks
His face like it’s all the way him
As never such old skin
looks my / Daughter age four
She thinks it might he might be real she shouts Hello
And after there’s no answer answers No
After a series of tumbling down, broken lines, McCrae ends on an (almost) perfect heroic couplet. It’s a crushing statement, delivered beautifully, with that extra foot in the penultimate line just enough to keep the world from seeming more perfect than it is.
Phillips, Harrison, and McCrae are just three poets working hard to craft their lines innovatively; there are surely others. They take their art seriously; they take their lines seriously. I do not mean to imply that lines are the be-all, end-all of poetry—the genre we call prose poetry dispenses with them altogether and is still poetry. But lines are integral to what most of us do as poets. Whether they be highly rhythmic, metrical, and musical, or quixotic and chaotic, I want the lines to shape a poem’s meaning as much as its metaphors and subjects do.