Nationality: American. Born: Carl Phillips, Jr., Everett, Washington, 23 July 1959. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977–81, A.B. 1981; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1981–83, M.A.T. 1983; Boston University, Boston, 1992–93,M.A. 1993. Family: With Doug Macomber since 1991. Career: High school teacher, Falmouth High School, Falmouth, Massachusetts, 1985–91. Assistant professor, 1993–96, and since 1996 associate professor, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. Awards: Samuel French Morse poetry prize, 1992, for In the Blood; Academy of American Poets prize, 1993; Guggenheim fellowship, 1997; Witter Bynner fellowship, Library of Congress, 1997.
In the Blood. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Cortège. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1995.
From the Devotions. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1998.
Pastoral. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 2000.
The Tether. New York, Farrar Straus, 2001.
Critical Studies: "The Dark Room Collective: Thomas Sayers Ellis, Trasi Johnson, John Keene, Janice Lowe, Carl Phillips, Sharan Strange, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young," in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 16(3), summer 1993; interview with Charles H. Rowell, in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 21(2), spring 1998; in New Republic (New York), 9 March 1998; "Symbolic Changes: Karen Helfrich Talks with Carl Phillips," in Lambda Book Report, 6(9), 1 April 1998.* * *
Carl Phillips, initially received in some quarters as a lyric writer within conventions suggested by the term "workshop poet," has emerged in his greater poems as a somewhat less traditional poet, one of the most original of his generation. Phillips's rhetorical abilities were never in doubt, but in part his early work was at times misread as, to use Harold Bloom's words, "cultural guilt" or the products of "the School of Resentment." Social afflictions that are common to gay life in America have led to powerful narrative and lyrical poems, but Phillips is concerned with more than the record or expression of personal suffering. Although he is very much a poet of eros, it is not merely a localized, personal experience that underlies his work. Autobiography enters, explicitly at times, but it does so as a source for language rather than as cause for public complaint. Unlike confessional works, his poems do not call for the reader's sympathy. As in all great poetry, the prime subject is language itself.
"Elegy," in Phillips's first book, In the Blood (1992), begins, "Poor Eros: sadly, as in the boning of fowl / or of angels in defeat, someone has snapped / his wings off …" and weaves through six syntactically complex stanzas to what might otherwise be a strictly sentimental conclusion, an older man remembering the time when "his / pink legs [worked] whole crowds into longing." But the easy sentimentality and self-indulgence of such moments are not the subject or point. Rather, Phillips controls the movement of the man's reflections in measured stanzas, the stoically ordered language moderating the tone. The man may be self-indulgent, but the poem is not. The reader is kept at arm's length, watching the words take their exact places like the bits and pieces of an enormously complex mosaic. In the end the man's feeling may be simple and direct, but the reader's interest lies in the labyrinthine process involved in expressing it.
Phillips is a mosaicist, building his poems from bits and pieces of language rather than starting with grand gestures or complaints and then letting these carry the poem. In this his temperament is classical. The orderly progression is evident, for example, in the concluding section of "Arcadia" in From the Devotions (1998), where he writes,
He is not like the others, who say nothing and leave soon.
This one—done, but still stiff—is a dark
weight upon him, that stays, groaning/whispering
baby and pie.
The musically baroque twists in the second line break at exactly the right moment, after "dark," to prompt a momentary pause before the eye reaches "weight," allowing in turn the weight in the sound of the word to enforce the meaning. Phillips is musically exact, and his work is clearly the result of considerable struggle to attain the exact pitch, a degree of precision that is never easily achieved. There are few poets around who do it this well.
As both gay and African-American, Phillips is an outsider in America. While another writer might use this social identity for complaint (as if the object were to be "accepted," although if he were, the reason for poetry, at least the kind of poetry he writes, would be lost), Phillips uses it to create his own precisely measured space. He is like William Bronk, another gay poet whose response to being an outsider was not anger or resentment but a controlled understanding of what was left. And what was left proved to be everything worth knowing.
Phillips's major book From the Devotions tracks a route from physical desire to spiritual awareness, and it is a process of this kind that most concerned Bronk. The latter was known as a poet who saw physicality as delusive but inescapable, nor, as the poems make clear, would he have wanted to escape it if he could. Similarly, Phillips says in "In the Days of Thrown Confetti" (From the Devotions),
Back when, I suppose,
it could be said we didn't care
about the earth, anymore
than about the flesh, but I
don't say it.
This is not to argue that Phillips learned from Bronk but that they have pursued parallel trajectories. Rather than be poets of complaint, protesting the injustices in being chosen as the outsider, each has carved out, with meticulous attention to language, spiritual recognitions that are at least the equal of anything reached by conventional pursuit. One finds similar trajectories in other major gay poets of the period, for instance, Gerrit Lansing, Ronald Johnson, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer. The end in each case is not an exploitation of one's self in the name of poetry but rather the invention of intricate linguistic worlds that can comprehend the largest kinds of understanding.
Phillips may prove to be absolutely the equal of predecessors like Bronk. He may well be one of our major poets.