Prayer and the body are the two big themes rippling through Pastoral, Carl Phillips's new book of luminous, questioning poems. Trained in classical Greek and Latin, Phillips seems to excavate as he forms words into lines, breaking images into tiny parts of thought as he digs for meaning and accuracy.
As part of this excavation, Pastoral explores what flesh, wanting, and belief are made of. A finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Phillips has produced four collections of accomplished verse in the past few years. In each book, the influence of classical syntax and rhythm can be heard. And with each book, Phillips refines his poetic voice, combining the prayerlike and the erotic, and often elegantly swooping from a whisper to a scream in the space of a few stanzas.
This time, the poems fall along a wide range of tones, from italicized commands like "Let me" and "Now" in the poem "Lay Me Down" to a hesitant question, or a deepening well of self-doubt. Phillips is always original, and he's always remembering, even when a poem is firmly written in present tense. He is hyperaware not only of the ancient poets, but also of history, especially the great destructions.
In the ominously titled "The Kill," he remembers a familiar daily scene. The speaker analyzes his own love for another in clinical detail that suddenly veers into longing. The way these lines break adds to the sense of tragic fragment, of an ache:
The last time I gave my body up,
to you, I was minded
briefly what it is made of,
what yours is, that
I'd forgotten, the flesh
I hold in plenty no
little sorrow for because -- oh, do
but think on its predicament,
In just four stanzas, Phillips moves from an image of both love and surrender to a consideration of temporality -- the bald fact that his lover is mortal. This thought of "its predicament" makes him weep, even though death is not a stated issue here.
In "The Kill," the last poem in the volume, the speaker anticipates the need to remember. The second poem in the book referred to Pompeii, and the shadow of Pompeii is still resonant as the speaker describes his lover's body, still current and alive despite the title's warning.
He remembers a body he has felt before, and probably will feel again -- judging by the present tense of "what yours is." And yet, the speaker here feels the need to freeze that body in time, to memorialize it. The next stanza explains this strong urge to hold on:
We cleave most entirely
to what most we fear
losing. We fear loss
because we understand
the fact of it, its largeness, its
utter indifference to whether
we do, or don't,
The "largeness" of loss is what these poems are loath to accept, even as they seek to understand. Each poem tries to break loss down into questions, confessions, prayers, or simple expressions of doubt. While the poems fight against death and inevitable loss, they also seem to seek moral guidance to help with these losses.
Nowhere is the search for answers and guidance more apparent than at the endings of these poems, which are frequently questions. Phillips is fond of abrupt, mysterious dashes as conclusions. In his quest for a moral compass, he also quotes from "Lamentations" and draws on familiar Biblical stories. The wanderings of Cain, for example, seem to appear in the backgrounds of poems where man seeks. What's more, the epigraph is from George Herbert, the great poet of faith and the war between faith and flesh.
The sense of struggle between opposing ideas is something Phillips incorporates and modernizes into a contemporary parable of carnal love and constant questioning of that love. There's a frequent seesawing in the book, a back-and-forth on the big questions that permeates even the simplest narrative. For example, in "Favor," the second section of a five-part poem called "And Fitful Memories of Pan," Phillips sees a man in the distance:
Even from a distance, I can tell:
a man, clearly.
Gods cast no shadow.
The struggle between man and God, between flesh and faith, is hinted at in the first stanza. Man, for Phillips, is an instrument of struggle, a tortured wanderer. The poem continues:
Also, that he tires,
stops to rest, looks like
sleeping, or could use some.
How long he has been,
coming, how long it takes, just
to cross it, the lush
measure that -- all summer -- has
been these well-groomed,
well-fed grounds, the lake
unswum and gleaming, the light
the useless extravagance
Phillips basically forms the scene of a man walking into a discussion of man's temporality, the fact that man tires. While what God makes -- "the lake unswum and gleaming" -- needs to make no effort to be beautiful, man exhausts himself just surviving. By the last two stanzas, the speaker concludes that the body must make bets with itself:
Always, the body
up, through itself --
Give. What he wants, he shall have.
In Phillips's work, man -- though mortal -- still has great power. Man can demand, man can inspire love, and man can pray. In the struggle between man and God, in that constant "wagering," man sometimes wins.