Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips Joyce Carol Oates - Essay

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Pregnant Man, Robert Phillips is] idiosyncratic, rather wildly inventive … speaking with a wry, sad humor of the sort of pregnancy a man must endure…. In "The Married Man," "The Cultivated Man" …, "The Invisible Man," and "Hand Poem" Phillips presents a compelling alternative vision to Rich's oppressive "male god"; feminists should read The Pregnant Man if for no other reason than to see, to be forced to see, that "feminine" sensitivity (and, indeed, suffering) is hardly the exclusive lot of women. In a fantasy, "The Skin Game," the poet acquires a wet-suit to protect him … and in "The Stone Crab: A Love Poem," he establishes a rather frightful identity with a creature whose giant claw is broken from him to be eaten (the crab itself is thrown back into the sea so that he can grow another claw). How many losses can he endure?, Phillips inquires.

The first section of The Pregnant Man is called "Body Icons," and is prefaced by a statement by Dylan Thomas: "All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells, or senses." Phillips's poems on various body organs or bodily predicaments—poems on the skin, on the heart, on the head, the penis, the hand, the foot, and on the recurring metaphor of male pregnancy—are wittily accomplished, and might be misread as satirical verse just as Steinberg's art is often misread as cartoon art. Elsewhere in the volume Phillips is more conventionally "serious": his poems on Picasso, Giacometti, Burchfield …, Carson McCullers, Delmore Schwartz, and Shirley Jackson are simply very good poems. The Pregnant Man seems a slimmer volume than it really is, perhaps because one wishes it longer. (pp. 27-8)

Joyce Carol Oates, in a review of "The Pregnant Man," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 24, December 9, 1978, pp. 27-8.