Arts & Culture » Arts

Ties That Bind

Carl Phillips tests the emotional boundaries of devotion in The Tether


To stand/unsuffering/in the presence of another's/agony is its own/perhaps difficult but/irrefutable pleasure ...."

Iowa City can have that effect on anybody.

The poetic voice in Carl Phillips new collection, The Tether, speaks coolly, wisely, from a diminished world: "The usual//stammer of heart the naïve/tend to, in the face of what finally/is only the world."

Iowa City isn't exactly a diminished world, but it seemed that way when Phillips was a visiting professor there three years ago. That stay, at least in part, was an impetus to the writing of these poems. "It was a rather troublesome stay in Iowa," Phillips says in his book-lined office at Washington University, where he is director of the creative-writing program. "It's a high-pressure place in a number of ways."

The University of Iowa is home to the mother of all creative-writing programs, but Phillips' experience there was far from arcadian, and that, along with the tests that inevitably come to a long relationship, as well as the death of a friend, provoked some rethinking of art and life on Phillips' part. "I suddenly thought From the Devotions seemed as if it were a book about devotion, but academically so. The same with Pastoral. They seemed like academic meditations on something that maybe I have danced around with. This book is more about betrayal -- it's the difference between writing about devotion and being faced with the real thing, with being devoted."

For those of you who haven't been following along, book by book (five now), the trail of Phillips' poetic investigations -- "what is devotion, what is fidelity, the handling of the body vs. how we're told we're supposed to conduct the body," as the poet summarizes his themes during an interview -- the chilling tone of indifference to be found in many of the poems in The Tether (no matter how lyrical) is not his standard fare.

Phillips is a sensualist. Even as his work has turned more mindful than physical in the last few books, he's kept to the substance of being. Like Donne, like Hopkins, like Dickinson -- poets to whom Phillips is kin -- he doesn't venture too far from the physical in his metaphysical explorations. "I saw what desperate/is, what also/is faith," Phillips writes in 1998's From the Devotions, noting the nearness of the two. "The last time I gave my body up,//to you, I was minded/briefly what it is made of..." from "The Kill" in last year's Pastoral is emblematic of Phillips' perpetual inquiry -- mind and body so near, yet one seemingly wanting to devour the other. Words such as "desire," "need," "want" and "hunger" reappear in his work because they define the essential forces that drive the world -- the human and nonhuman. His poems wonder about the artist in the world, God and gods. He risks your indulgence in other archaic notions, such as love.

The qualities of Phillips' work that keep those of you who have been following along following along include the passion at the center of it all, his stubborn insistence that thinking about the things Donne and Hopkins and Dickinson thought about still has value in a world where the pastoral is disintegrating. Most welcome to faithful readers is the generosity of his vision. This is a world worth loving, and worth loving in, Phillips finds, again and again. Thanks.

So from the first stanza of his new collection, The Tether, it's apparent something is up: "with art for once//not in mind" he writes. In Phillips' previous books, art is in mind most of the time, but The Tether samples life without it. The result is a vision dispassionate, indifferent, even cruel. In the poem "The Point of the Lambs," the speaker, on a little pastoral jaunt to a sheep farm, resists touching "lambs who//besides dying, were as well/filthy," and in so doing finds himself "curbing the hand's instinct/to follow the eye, to//confirm vision." The sensualist of previous books has grown distracted, witnessing "from a great height/of air" or "indifferent to the certain//plunder." If the previous books were driven by a motion toward the other, the beloved, the world, in The Tether (at least in the first half of the book) the speaker consistently turns away.

"I guess it comes from being in a relationship long enough, too," Phillips says, considering the starker vision of these poems. "After a while it's the strain that most defines the tightness of the connection between people. After a while, relationships get tested in so many different ways -- and Iowa was eye-opening in that way, too. That seems to me to be a place where there's a lot of freedom and playing around -- for the strangest reasons, for empty reasons, to get published.

"It seems this is more a complete and true book about the connections between people."

The Tether is organized, with few exceptions, in the order in which the poems were written, and divided into two sections, the first with poems from August-December (the Iowa period), the second from January-May (back in Missouri). "I thought these poems seemed almost diaristic," Phillips explains, "and maybe that would be the way to contain them in these sections." Structuring the book in real time also works with what Phillips says is one of The Tether's themes: "How do you make an art stripped of the trappings of art?

"As you know," Phillips continues, "my partner is a photographer, and it's interesting when we work together that we'll both be seeing things, but he sees the actual thing. I've already decided, 'This thing equals this, it equals that.' In the poem 'The Figure, the Boundary, the Light,' [his partner] Doug and I have gone into a field where he was going to do some photo shooting. As he was walking away, I had this idea of 'It's really as if some sylvan God going away, that perhaps you've lost the chance at beckoning back in the way that it happens in the Aeneid, where he doesn't realize he's seeing his mother until she's gone.' And at the same time I think, 'All you're doing is standing in a field with your partner while he's taking photographs. Why does everything have to be transcendent of what it is?'

"Maybe that's part of what was happening at Iowa City, too. Of course, poetry means a lot to me, but it's not everything. And sometimes I think how, especially these days, it seems so much more about career than about poetry; it seems people get lost. What first brought me to poetry was my fascination with the world itself."

The lens of art can distract or distort that world as much as it can redeem or compose it. "I don't in any way disavow the earlier books," Phillips says, "but I think sometimes certain vaticlike statements -- I made them honestly, but then at a certain point I think, 'What do you think? Do you hold all the truth?' It's a little laughable. It's almost as if while one was sitting around waxing vatic, one had lost sight of the world.

"Maybe the tether is the thing that reminds you there's something else on the other end. It's not all about endless flight upward."

Phillips admits to what he refers to as "the pitch of cruelty" in the first half of The Tether (the "irrefutable pleasure" found "in the presence of another's/agony" is a Lucretian idea, says Phillips, a former Latin teacher): "That's what can happen. There can be a cruelty that results from having been so certain that one was in possession of the truth that one has grown rigid and inflexible about what it is to be in a relationship, what it is to be human. That can lead to cruelty.

"It ties in with weaving failure, or fallibility, into a life. I'd like to think that in the second half [of the book] there's more the idea that maybe there's nothing unforgivable but there's everything to forgive."

In the second half of the book, the speaker more fully re-enters the world and is entered by the world. A splay of feathers is handed to the speaker in the poem "The Pinnacle," and, unlike the episode with the diseased lambs, "I stopped thinking/what I was thinking -- the/uncleanliness of birds --//and took them into/my hand. I arranged/the feathers into the rough//shape of a fan, and began,/like that, to feel cooler, more/sure ... ."

"There one goes back into the fray," says Phillips, "with all its complications, and knowing that there will be disappointment, but this time disappointment won't come with surprise and might come with a certain amount of appreciation."

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