In "Coin of the Realm," a collection of critical essays that he published in 2004, Carl Phillips outlined a literary sensibility that’s helpful to keep in mind while reading his poems. “For me, to write is a form of prayer, however secular the subject of the writing at hand,” he told readers. “Writing is as private as prayer – it contains, as prayer does, an implicit faith in there being somewhere a listener and at the same time a sober realization that prayer is finally one-directional.”
That vision rests at the heart of Wild is the Wind, Phillips’s new collection of poems. His verse often seems like an interior monologue on which the reader is casually eavesdropping.
The title of "Wild is the Wind" refers to an old jazz standard, but it also neatly chimes with Phillips’s interest in nature. The double meaning of the title underscores his equal fascination with both culture and the outdoors. His poems casually quote Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius while touching on wind and water, woods and bonfires, coyotes and storms. In the title poem, Phillips recalls a time when he lived “at the forest’s edge – metaphorically, so it can sometimes seem now, though the forest was real, as my life beside it was....”
One isn’t quite sure what engages Phillips more – the real woods, or the idea of them. The question arises again in “Musculature,” which begins with a discussion of his dog then digresses into a discussion of language and mortality, the canine itself never quite coming into focus.
That’s an abiding challenge with Phillips’s poems, which can become so immersed in intellectual disquisition that they sound aridly abstract.
At his best, though, Phillips has a keen eye for what’s transitory – for those things made all the more beautiful because they can’t last. In “Swimming,” he artfully compares wind-swept trees to a kind of star that a helmsman might steer by, then wistfully asks, “Do people, anymore, even say helmsman?”
What results is a poignant moment – the poet using language to preserve a memory, then wondering if language itself, a cherished instrument for passing what’s precious from one age to another, is also vulnerable to time.
It’s a problem perhaps only a poet would be anguished by, though another poem, “Brothers in Arms,” shows Phillips coming to terms with the occupational hazards of his vocation: “I’ve always thought gratitude’s the one correct response to having been made, however painfully, to see this life more up close.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of 'A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.'