Pastoral is the fourth book of poetry by the distinguished contemporary poet Carl Phillips. The poems are very complex and make heavy demands upon the reader’s perception and critical abilities. However, the poems reward such a commitment, as well as the reader’s close and sustained attention. The poems are written in free verse with short, run-on lines that weave their way through a number of complex arguments and difficult poetic structures. In nearly every poem, the links between the various sections are not logical but associative, and, at times, not even that. They do, finally, work their way through contradictions and associative links to some limited affirmations, questions and assertions.
The title of the collection requires comment. Phillips evokes the ancient pastoral poetic form which portrays an idyllic world of nature and shepherds who have nothing to do but sing of love or nature. Nature is portrayed in most of these poems, but it is limited to a few images such as the bird, stag, and light; these are precisely observed, but they function as symbols more than as real entities. For example, in one poem, Phillips describes a natural landscape as “a kind of meadow,” since it cannot be precisely defined. This contrasts with the long pastoral tradition of describing and celebrating the conventionally beautiful aspects of nature. In another poem, he sees the scene as being “unbeautiful,” an obvious variation from the poetic norm and the pastoral tradition.
Phillips is clearly a postmodern poet who rejects the earlier conventions and genres found in traditional poetry, as well as those of modernist poetry. There are, however, a number of repeated themes and images that unify the collection. One of the most important of these does belong to the pastoral tradition: love. However, Phillips sees love in terms of the body, an image that appears in nearly every poem; it is not the idyllic and romantic love of the pastoral tradition, but it is, instead, desire and flesh. He also constantly describes what a place or perception is “not,” rather than confidently describing it. Longing and absence are common feelings in these poems. Nearly every poem is filled with such negations, which weave their way to a qualified affirmation or a question.
The first poem in the collection is “A Kind of Meadow.” The meadow is first seen as an assemblage of discrete parts that “stands for./ A kind of meadow . . . .” It is suffused with “late light and the already underway/ darkness,” out of which one expects an antlered stag to emerge, an image that is found in a number of poems. This vision of nature is revealed as deceptive, however, since it occurs only “in poems.” In addition, it is unattainable in that context and turns into an image of desire and “flesh at once/ lit and lightless, a way/ out . . . [and] back”. The meadow is clearly not a specific object to be observed, as in the usual nature poetry, but something that triggers associations and meditations that affirm the presence, and absence, of flesh and memory.
“Clay” begins by speaking of shape and direction, which are quickly related to the body and the hands that have touched it. The body and desire are found in nearly every poem in the collection; they provide the central theme and focus of Pastoral. Shape and direction are turned into “narrative,/ history our story.” The poem ends with a question: “When did I choose/ The Flesh, Wanting?” Memory and history are ways of speaking about desire in all of its stages and evanescence. The poet seems to be uncertain about the choice of “Wanting,” and it is something he is left to ponder on the choice of desire; that is all that can be said at this point.
“Abundance” is a different poem, and a clearer affirmation than is found in most of the other poems in the book. It begins with the body, only to see other elements as necessary. One of those is the bird, whose “small life/ . . . is home,” although “irretrievable.” History and memory are evoked once more but cannot be captured. The buck then appears as a beneficent image; it is a return of the stag in “A Kind of Meadow.” His antlers are “branching like hands or/ like trees.” They are “Full of blooms . . . that you must call . . . Prayers; these willed disclosures.” The disclosures are presumably between lovers and are seen as sacred connections, although they remain through the body.
“Clap of Thunder” uses a number of the same images and themes, but it comes to a very different resolution. It begins with a stranger calling the poet; he...
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