Carl Phillips Essay - Critical Essays


Since his debut collection, In the Blood, was awarded the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize in 1982, Carl Phillips has evolved to be one of the most provocative and intellectual voices in contemporary poetry. His idiosyncratic style is characterized by vivid, often startling imagery, inventive use of language and syntax, and a meticulous approach to form. Phillips’s craft often employs art, religion, history, classical literature, philosophy, myth, and animal imagery. Although recognized for his frank exploration of gay issues, his poetic quest is to address the universal question of what it means to be human. This involves an examination of identity, the body as flesh and spirit, the role of power and subjugation in relationships, and the vulnerabilities inherent in faith and skepticism, longing and loss.

Quiver of Arrows

Quiver of Arrows includes selected poems from eight volumes and spans twenty years of Phillips’s literary career. Phillips’s fascination with the body is a mixture of awe, celebration, and despair. In “Life Lessons from Art,” he declares that the body’s source must always be light and, when viewing artwork, finds glory in a girl’s “lifted arm” or a “bit of neck escaping/ from the meister’s lace cravat—” Similarly, in “Cortège,” light can be seen connecting with the flesh, although in an exalted, romanticized way, as candlelight illuminates a lover’s body. However, Phillips is also acutely aware of the body’s vulnerabilities. In “Our Lady,” a gay male dancer lies in a hospital bed afflicted with what is probably acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Still, Phillips does not dwell on this detail; rather he frankly observes the body’s frailty while also recognizing the dancer’s beauty as he weakly rises from his bed to show a tattoo spelling out the words “Adore Me.”

Phillips also takes a philosophical and religious approach to the death of the body and the effect of loss on those left behind. In “A Great Noise,” a grief-stricken speaker wonders about the fate of his lover’s soul and doubts whether the spirit is ever really freed from the body upon death. “From a Quiver of Arrows” finds a group of friends facing the difficult task of cleaning out the home of someone...

(The entire section is 942 words.)