Pastoral Essay - Critical Essays

Carl Phillips


Pastoral is Carl Phillips third book of poems, and it is an impressive collection. The pastoral mode of the title is not, however, in these poems a traditional celebration of idyllic nature. Nature is precisely observed in a number of poems, but it is a post-modern description. For example, “Unbeautiful” speaks of what is not the traditionally beautiful but of “whatever flourishes too well—ugly has done.” “A Kind of a Meadow” is a minimalist description of an area that cannot be described in the usual poetic language. All that can be said about it is: “a kind of meadow, and then/ trees__many assembled, a wood/ therefore.”

The book may be a post-modern version of the pastoral, but it does use one traditional aspect of the pastoral: love poems. A number of the poems in this collection move from a description of landscape to a celebration of desire and the body. In “Billet Doux,” he links the “bruise” in the flowers to that of a loved one he admires.

A theme of the book is excess, a principle announced in an epigraph from Robert Duncan’s “The Propositions.” However, the search for and through excess leads to limits and barely defined or minute elements of nature. There are no grand spaces of nature, only what can be closely and acutely observed. Phillips does use classical myths in a number of poems. There is a long, four-part poem on “And Fitful Memories of Pan,” and one on the gods leaving this world. In this changed world, Phillips can still talks of the gods only to announce that they have departed.

Sources for Further Study

Lambda Book Report 8 (April, 2000): 16.

Publishers Weekly 246 (December 6, 1999): 71.

The Washington Post Book World, May 14, 2000, p. 6.

The Yale Review 88 (April, 2000): 164.

World Literature Today 74 (Summer, 2000): 600.