Empty Clip, Emilia Phillips’s staggering third collection, was the first in my (admittedly brief) reviewing history that I’ve read in its entirety before making any notes or underlining what jumped out at me. I simply couldn’t slow down thanks to the immediacy of these poems—a breathlessness tempered by deep tenderness that’s only possible in the wake of true reckoning.
During my second reading, I realized it’s one of those books that arrives exactly when you need it most and begins speaking as if it’s sitting beside you, ready to take your hand. I’d hazard that we’re all feeling a bit vulnerable these days, beaten down by years of unending regression. And, for many, the unique horror of this historical moment has caused old traumas to resurface, and triggers we’d imagined had faded are flaring back to life. Phillips has called this her “book of fears,” and she faces those fears unflinchingly, as in “One Year After Contemplating Suicide,” where the speaker refers to “the future / into which you survive still, / a dirt road / mile-markered by loss.” Phillips makes the case that loss is our true common language and acknowledges the ways in which we’re indelibly marked by it in poems like “Apostrophe, Oregon Hill,” where the speaker identifies “your absence dense inside me as a fulgurite / in sand after a lightning / storm.” Phillips also recognizes how powerless we are at keeping loss from ripping through our lives, as in “Campus Shooter PowerPoint and Information Session”:
If a shooter
enters your classroom, there’s nothing
I can do, he says, loosening his
tie. But I can help the classroom next
But Phillips’s eye lingers on spaces where horror and beauty, trauma and trust, brutality and gentleness rub against each other, throwing sparks, as in “facesofdeath.com,” where the speaker notices “how the bullet / grooved clean into the skin below / her clavicle. A buttonhole, a baby’s / mouth.” This speaker clings to the world even as it shifts and bucks away, as in “To the Neighbor Boy with His Father’s Hunting Rifle, Begging the Police to Shoot,” where “I watched instead / the tree in your parents’ yard / sway, turning out its leaves / like wrists.” Or “Denouement”:
The snow was up to my knees.
The shovel handle cracked in two.
The nuclear plant high-rised
steam. It was the most heavenlike thing
I’ve ever seen.
Ultimately, Phillips asks how we might be burnished by suffering, hammered until we’re more pliable, and ultimately, oriented toward empathy, as in “The Days That Were Have Now,” where the speaker imagines, “After the accident / one man will say to another, / She could be bleeding internally, / don’t move her.” This speaker looks to the almost imperceptible moments of grace that suffering makes possible, as in “On a Late-Night Encounter with a Barefoot College Student Wearing Only a Party Dress and a Man’s Blazer,” where the speaker relates that encounter, then shifts between it and a classroom incident in which a student inadvertently reveals she’s been raped. At the end:
She cried in the back seat wanting
to know if I was going to fail her
I said I wasn’t I didn’t
but in truth I really don’t know.
That’s a gutting acknowledgment of how we fail each other, how even the best intentions can come up short in the wake of trauma, but it’s also a reaching toward, a witnessing of that failing, and a questioning of how we might mitigate it and somehow be better to one another.
The engine powering this book is possibility—the uncertain promise of tomorrow and the curiosity we muster to face it, and that’s most evident in poems like “One Year After Contemplating Suicide,” where the impulse toward self-annihilation “comes like desire, / the way the smell / of soap turns you / back into a body— / the body that wanted that body”; even when turning away from the world, Phillips’s speaker pivots inexorably back into it. Phillips’s gift for possibility leads to moments like this in “Overpass,” where the speaker asserts, “I’m ready to say / that whatever / holds / our attention is a brief / god.” And I’ll take her at her word—this book, wrought from Phillips’s attention, is a brief god whose gospel is empathy and whose rites bind us to our brief, uncertain lives.