The Rest of Love is not easy poetry, but it is work that repays the effort spent rereading and thinking about it. From the beginning of his poetic career, Carl Phillips has clothed his challenging themes and concepts in richly allusive, lyrical garb. His poems deal with the flesh and the body, but they are not body-poems; rather, their specificity is merged with myth, so that their smallest images seem weighted. His subjects include the gay world, the natural world, and the possibility of a world beyond. Of another book, Cortège (1995), critic Kay Murphy commented, “The encoded diction of the gay subculture can slight the uninitiated; the disregard for narrative that forces an alternate means to meaning can challenge even the most active reader. These poetics shape Phillips's originality, courage, and sheer vitality within a tradition.” Other critics have commented on the open-endedness of the poems, their susceptibility to multiple interpretations, and their use of complex and layered images. In fact, while browsing through Phillips's books the reader may conclude that over the years the work has become even more dense, spare, and allusive. The enigmatic nature of Phillips's poetry contributes to its attraction.
Phillips studied classicism—in fact, he has translated Sophocles’ Philoktētēs (409 b.c.e.)—and the tales of the classics are a major part of his image bank, but the familiar (and sometimes unfamiliar) figures are deconstructed and reinterpreted to make part of a new mythology. Classical allusions abound in The Rest of Love, which melds body and spirit in poems that explore the nature of desire on all levels and seems to seek a point at which all desires meet as one. The mythical characters become real, and real people and places develop layers of mythology. Unexpected sidelights are discovered in the classical tales, possibilities of meaning so far unexplored.
These are spare, terse poems; perhaps half Phillips's lines do not stretch half the way across the page in this slim book. He writes in free verse and does not nod to the contemporary practice of including a few sonnets or villanelles in a group. The poetry is highly condensed, and there is not a hint of cliché here, in image, form, or diction. There are motifs, and the images and ideas group and regroup, teasing the mind into following them. The collection is divided into three sections: “The Sanctum,” “The Way as Promised,” and “The Rest of Love.” Often the free verse is organized into flexible tercets, and sound-echoes and rising and falling rhythms provide the poems’ music. The scenes in the poems are of nature and myth. They question what one derives from nature, from the observation of natural phenomena and the meditation on what presents itself. The question of whether anything rests behind nature, whether the surface glitter is its only light, is examined from multiple perspectives, and the answer derived may depend more on the reader than on the poem.
Even the titles are teasing in this way, as the names of these sections seem to point toward a central metaphysics that may or may not be there: the sanctum inside, the promised way, the rest of love—the invisible part of love, or the end of it, or its relaxation or release. If the work is read as a theological inquiry of sorts, the natural images are somewhat like those of Amy Clampett, whose quizzical theological investigations also provided open-ended answers. The combination of ambiguity and precision in The Rest of Love evokes emotional responses in the reader which may be directed as the reader chooses, as the poems are so open to multiple interpretation—toward a tentative definition of spiritual or of physical love, or possibly of both. The physical world glitters with meaning—but is this illusion, or not? Part of the theme of the poems is that one desires it not to be.
For those who are not always willing to engage with difficult, multilayered poetry, what often makes the difference is the imagery, which has to have enough power to it to hook the reader into the challenge of the poem. Cleverness and rich allusiveness...
(The entire section is 1693 words.)