‘Heaven’ by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
“what then / Is Heaven”
Heaven—Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s follow-up to his debut poetry collection, The Ground (FSG, 2012)—suggests a sequential relationship between the two title, as does the use of the same photo on the cover each book. The transition from the ground to the heavens also seems to mimic the rapidity of Phillips’s rise to poetry prominence: Heaven was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. While Phillips’s work in The Ground inhabits a hybrid space, earthly and Elysian, Heaven fully commits to exploration of the beyond. He places readers unambiguously in a skyscape, opening with an epigraph from Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”: “The owl looked up to the stars above, / and sang to a small guitar.” Readers, too, turn their gaze to the celestial; recall that Lear, an English poet famous for his limericks and “nonsense” poems, died in 1888. One may assume he helps populate heaven.
Heaven officially begins with the most impressive and impactful poem in the book, “The Mind after Everything Has Happened,” a poem lightly reminiscent of certain Wallace Stevens poems, especially “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” It acts as a sedative; I mean it’s a painkiller or, at the very least, an anxiolytic. “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light,” it begins. It relieves anxieties by affirming the value in our temporal lives, the “known, and obvious.” Or it confirms that our existential opining is not, in fact, atypical or unique. There’s something comforting in that. No one knows what the fuck is going on.
In a surprisingly casual attempt to come closer to knowing, Phillips’s speaker asks Benedict Robinson (an Associate Professor in English at Stony Brook University and a colleague) to text him if he knows what heaven is:
Benedict Robinson, text me, if you know:
If Hell is a crater to a crater
To a crater to a crater, what then
Is Heaven, aside from its opposite
The direct reference to Stevens (“Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know”) and informal context suggests at least partial acceptance, a speaker who is growing accustomed to unknowingness.
In later poems, Phillips continues to traverse the up-above. In a poem called “The Starry Night,” whose namesake, I’m guessing, is the Van Gogh painting (currently residing at MOMA; good luck getting near it on their Free Fridays), a mysterious speaker anthropomorphizes night: “Night frees its collar from around its neck.” The collar that night wears recalls the collar of the doe in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt…” Somehow, night, like Wyatt’s “hind” (or Anne Boleyn, if you’re in the know), is confined between the heavens and terra firma. However, it manages to escape and proceeds to pass a pair of bears “wading in the stellate subheaven.” Night, an obvious—perhaps too obvious—symbol for darkness and potential evil, gives this poem a slightly sinister subtext, and I’m not sure its imagery would feel as lovely without the ghost of Van Gogh’s painting. The speaker’s contention, however, is that the existence of the bears, their “malaise” (and, by extension, our minds and our malaise), serves to magnify the spiritual, and the universe’s “ambivalence towards small things.” Interestingly, the poem doesn’t seem to insist that we are the “small things.” We remind ourselves of this often enough, I suppose.
A poem in the book’s center, “Nature,” is sliver under the book’s thumbnail, even if it first seems like a break from a certain tedium that develops in Phillips’s subject matter. Here is the poem in its entirety: “This is what I sound like when I’m thinking.” The tremendous amount of white space on the page does more for the collection’s conceit than the words, and although “Nature” seems to be in direct conflict with the idea of heaven—being worldly, etc.—the “I” in the poem can easily be read as a stand-in for God or the creator of nature (or nature itself as embodiment and part/parcel of God). Suddenly, we realize we have not escaped heaven at all. We are still in God’s Kingdom.
The tone shifts, and heaven becomes a nuisance. Pointing out the illogic and unlikelihood of a heaven that suits everyone just perfectly, the speaker of “The Empyrean” complains, “‘Who the hell’s heaven is this?’” He strikes a chord here. Who would want to spend eternity in a place that they didn’t choose or even have any hand in decorating? The poem’s final image is stunning: heaven as “Feral, spurned, and up on its hind legs / Like a bear before a walker in the woods.” (Sidenote: given our age’s obsession with zombie apocalypse, it’s a little difficult not to read “walker” as zombie. Maybe that helps? Either way, heaven no longer sounds like a place we’d want to visit.)
Ultimately, the book’s biggest weakness is its redundancy: the tone of the meditations, and their subject matter, become predictable, and there are really no new philosophical revelations here. The poet is expert, however, at conveying calm in the face of complexity, and he’s able to do it again and again. James Tate wrote in “Dream On,” “Some people go their whole lives / without ever writing a single poem.” If the homogeneity of Heaven is any indication, Phillips is in danger of rewriting the same poem his whole life. He wouldn’t be the only one. We hear he’s got another book in the works, so let’s wait and see.