Emilia Phillips’s most recent chapbook, Hemlock (Diode Editions), does something that many books of poetry aim for, though few achieve—it serves as a document of a closely observed and deeply felt life. In verse so artful that it seems effortless, Phillips gives us access to a curious, dreamy intellect and a poetic eye as compassionate as it is exacting, and we are enriched by having seen through it.
One of the chapbook’s most effective craft elements is infrequent punctuation—although line breaks and capitalization serve similar ends—which gives it the breathless immediacy of an internal monologue. Through lack of capitalization, these poems step down from a rarified realm into a candid one, like something scribbled on a napkin or whispered in an ear. We feel confided in when reading, “I won’t even wear a t-shirt / into the store where I bought it / even if it was years / ago” (“Love ’Em and Leave ’Em Fast”).
By stripping away anything mannered, Phillips’s work gives an impression of spontaneity and intimacy. It seems perfectly natural then, that her eye turns to intimate, domestic spaces, to “my naked body in its easy / labor of making / coffee and sighing heavily” (“Crowd Crush”). Phillips draws a contrast between the body alone and in communion with itself and how that same body reacts to pressures of moving through society as a woman: “I bit / down on two fingers / before shoving them all the way in / my throat like a quiver / of arrows” (“If You Can See My Mirrors I Can’t See You”).
The intimacy that Phillips forges with her readers allows for an exploration of the slipperiness of identity, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality, as in “Love ’Em and Leave ’Em Fast,” “’I / played father / in all games of house the doctor / who cut the baby out.” And, in “Moonpie,” Phillips conjures the rich possibilities that exist beyond binaries, while recognizing the limitations of the physical: “beyond / absolutes, everything / or nothing, neither / all nor none of what I am, her teeth got in the way.” After all, as she wonders in “Ladyfingers,” “wouldn’t god use / they for their pronouns / or none at all.”
Amidst this reverie, there are flashes of bittersweet lyricism, “the most patriotic / I get these days is loving / the smell of a struck / match” (“Sweat Bee”), as well as danger, “I see her bottom lip so swollen / that her lipstick prints / upside-down on her chin” (“Crowd Crush”). But, ultimately, Phillips’s verse is a humanistic one. She inhabits everyday minutiae, enlarging and exalting in it, and revealing the universality, not just of isolation and pain, but also of joy, “sitting in me / like some impossible / watermelon from an accidentally / swallowed seed” (“Moonpie”).