‘Silverchest’ by Carl Phillips
“meaning what, though, or where?”
Silverchest is Carl Phillips’s twelfth book of poems, and while it is a book only Carl Phillips could have written (which I mean as praise and not as a claim of redundancy), it breaks away into a new territory and, at times, new voice, as it deals directly with landscapes informed by the natural world as much as by the sexual imagination. It is also a book that investigates in a somewhat formal way (in tone and not poetics) the consequences of desire and the strange and moody ambivalence of desire (which may sound like an oxymoron, but, according to this poet, isn’t).
Phillips has always been a homosexual writing a kind homosexual text (about sex, about elegance, about longing, about the lyric life, about mythology and ambiguity) and the poems in this new book are shorter and fall on the page as ingeniously lineated stanzas (almost every poem looks different) dealing with subjects like anonymous sex, rough sex, or in “Distraction” with sex and a man in uniform:
He did what I told him to,
which for once I thought shouldn’t count
as weakness: he laid his gun on the bureau,
took his own shirt off first, then mine—but then wrapped
the gun up softly inside both of them, sign
for many things, Trust me, Close your eyes, Make a wish,
so that I couldn’t decide…
And while Phillips is arguably at his most personal, and therefore revelatory, with Silverchest, he is also at his most spare, while still keeping close to the strong lyric dialectic line that informs all of his other books. It’s a book that feels in tone and suppleness haunted not only by the past, but by what the present is trying to tell the future and beyond the future. Here’s the middle of “After the Afterlife”:
the afterlife, there’s an afterlife. A stand of
cottonwood trees getting ready all over again,
because it’s spring, to release their seeds that
only look like cotton; they’re not cotton, at all.
What distinguishes this book, though, honestly, is how closely it looks at gay sexuality as something as joyous as it is complicated (“…like any//man for whom sex is, or has at last become,/an added sense by which to pass ungently but more/entirely across a life where, in between the silences,//he leaves what little he’s got to show for himself…” he says in one poem). Most of the poems are raw and short and thrilling the way shortness of breath is thrilling and many of them have terrific titles (“And Other Animals,” “After the Afterlife,” “Black Swan on Water, in Little Rain” and “Darkness Is As Darkness Does,” among them). While there is a kind of happiness (the happiness that follows desire), the encounters here (and I think of all of these poems as encounters) feel somewhat ambiguous or ambivalent. Here’s the end of “So the Mind Like a Gate Swings Open”:
I used to get drunk in parking lots with strangers: we’d park
we’d drink, and—and didn’t think what to call it, the rest
that came after, what is a thing like that worth calling: he
took me into his arms? he held me? I know longing’s
a lot like despair: both can equal everything you’ve ever
hoped for, if that’s how you want it—sure, I get that. What’s
wrong with me, I used to ask, but usually too late, and not
meaning it anyway. He touches me, or I touch him, or don’t.
Sex—any variation of sex—can sound and feel as though it is coming from a distance to become, finally, intimate. Or not. “He touches me, or I touch him, or don’t”. And in “How Rough, How Gentle,” Phillips may be trying to make anonymous sex not mean something exactly, but at least equal something. Here he takes the nervy thrill of a chance encounter of rough sex and gives it another context completely in order to see it more clearly:
…before a life comes true again: the room no different
than I remember leaving it: the snow still falls into it,
on the same man bound naked to a chair, and trembling,
saying Take me—meaning what, though, or where?—as
I brush the snow from his hair, as I take him, in my arms.
Sex, of course, at the hand of the poet, can be a vehicle for understanding something bigger and, at times, in direct opposition of sex’s brand of physical force and power—an understanding of beauty and the variable motion of the world. And the sense of understanding—from a distance—the world in its wholeness or simply a man asleep in a bed is a key to the deeper concerns of Silverchest. Here, in its entirely, is that key, in the form of a poem Phillips’ calls “Late in a Long Apprenticeship”
At last, he’s asleep.
I can look at him the way I’m meant to.
His body moves like any ocean. The ocean moves like any field
back home: submission, submission’s shadow, wind, submission.