The vitality in Carl Phillips’s latest collection of verse, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), springs from the tension found in the poet’s impulse toward philosophical reflection, on the one hand, and associative boldness, on the other. The push and pull between these two impulses is central to Phillips’s creative work, and it’s a feature that keeps us returning to his poetry again and again. In “Tugging the Arrow Out”—one of the first poems in the volume—we see this tension on full display:
There’s a nudging that a living horse
will sometimes extend toward a dead one,
a nudging not so much against death—what is
knowable to a horse, but not understandable—
but against that space right before loneliness
settles in for real that horses
do, it seems, understand.
In these lines, the poet draws a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Horses, we are told, are capable of knowing what death is, but they are not capable of understanding it; what they seem able to understand, however, is that space “right before loneliness settles in for real.” What exactly is that space? Phillips doesn’t provide an answer to this question (perhaps an answer cannot, in principle, be given), but he is nonetheless precise in his claim that the nudging happens not at (or after) the moment when loneliness settles in, but right before it. He goes on to write:
And so that was the first day.
The night was what night always is:
a black starfish, black according to some
for holiness, to others for the limbs themselves,
unfurling as if from long sleep or a late stiffness,
or as when a quiet thing, and very still, starts moving,
moves, one stiff black limb
at a time.
What a leap! You might expect that, given the careful distinction in the first half of the poem, we’d be provided with stepping stones to help us get from point A to point B, from horses and knowledge to starfish and night. Instead, what we have to contextualize the first half of the piece—and to transition to the next—is simply the following, cryptic assertion: “And that was the first day.” Are we lead to believe that a living horse nudged a dead one on the first day, and now that day is over? Or, maybe, that an American poet based in St. Louis wrote about horses and knowledge on the first day, and then proceeded to do something quite different after that? Should we think of the line as a reference to the Book of Genesis (and its association with creativity and the artistic enterprise)? All of the above? Which details are included in a poem and which are left out is pivotal to our understanding, and looking closely at the choices a poet makes reveals insights not only about an artist’s particular aesthetic orientation and preferences, but also about what is expected (imaginatively or interpretatively) of the reader. Although it might appear that the two halves of “Tugging the Arrow Out” were written at different times, the daring transition in the eighth line is based not on syllogistic reasoning or deduction (the stuff of philosophy), but on the rhetorical technique of association. It’s the dynamic tension between these two impulses—careful reflection and bold association—that gets this poem off the ground.
In a later piece titled “Said the Horse to the Light,” Phillips continues his exploration of knowledge and understanding:
To enter the room is to know at once how it not so long ago
contained fear. Is to understand hesitation both ways: as a form
of worry, and as but a sign for it. Through the room’s lone window,
it’s that ragged end to the season
when to find a sycamore
means watching for the bark’s tendency
toward scab; if birch, then the bark unfurling, less
like a ship’s sails than like the worn-to-parchment-thin stages
of a landfall won barely: hard the crossing,
and only some survived. . . Sometimes, to trust
the sea isn’t so much the point, anymore, as to know—
without minding it—the sea’s indifference. There’s a series of
rooms where everything between what I remember of us
for a time took place—each room
like this room; not much larger.
Not that I’d go back there.
Not that the names that we used weren’t our own,
but that we didn’t need names, when I’m moved at all.
How precise and absolute I was, and—almost as if therefore—
how unspeakable. The sea itself. Arguing neither for loneliness, nor against it.
The first three lines are thematically similar to those we looked at in “Tugging the Arrow Out”—they are philosophical, in that they’re concerned not only with epistemological concepts such as “knowledge” and “understanding,” but also with the relationship between emotional concepts (e.g., “hesitation” and “worry”). When one enters a room, we are told, one understands hesitation “both ways”—that is to say, as a form of worry, and also as a sign for it. How one comes to gain this understanding remains unspecified, however, and we’re quickly whisked away by images of the natural world and the perils of seafaring. But note the ending of the poem, and its connection to the subjects we’ve been exploring thus far. Phillips writes:
How precise and absolute I was, and—almost as if therefore—
How unspeakable. The sea itself. Arguing neither for loneliness, nor against it.
What should we make of this declaration? The sea—though powerful, precise, and absolute—is fundamentally incapable of speech. It does not argue, advance propositions, or pontificate about loneliness (or anything else, for that matter). The same could be said of horses. Let’s return to the first lines of “Taking the Arrow Out.” The nudging a living horse extends to a dead one is absolute in the sense it’s decisive; it is also precise in respect to its timing, in that it occurs against that space right before (and not during or after) loneliness settles in. And yet, horses cannot speak about their understanding or articulate their phenomenological experience when encountering death and dying.
So much for horses. But how should we render the following, more troubling lines: “How precise and absolute I was, and—almost as if therefore— /How unspeakable”? It’s rather striking that a poet, of all people, would connect the absolute and precise with the ineffable. Isn’t poetry a paradigmatically written and spoken artform? Here, I’m reminded of Heather McHugh’s well-known narrative poem, “What He Thought” (1994), a piece that—like Phillips’s “Said the Horse to the Light”— is concerned with the nature of knowledge and the limits of speech. The poem’s last lines describing the death of Giordano Bruno—the Italian friar, philosopher, and mathematician—are particularly poignant:
And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which
he could not speak. That’s
how they burned him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
poetry is what
he thought, but did not say.
Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori in 1600 after being found guilty of heresy, and McHugh’s reimagining of this event leads us to consider not only the unfortunate and horrifying end to the life of a great scientist and philosopher, but also to ask urgent questions about what can and should be said (or not said) in moments of violence and atrocity. Sometimes, the most precise, absolute, and powerful thing one can say is nothing at all.
The poems in Carl Phillips’s heartfelt and beautiful new collection, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, remind us of this lesson.