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Poet Writes "Of the Flesh"
With Classical Richness


By Lawrence Biemiller

Cambridge, Mass. -- Here is how Carl Phillips begins "Cortege," the title poem of his latest book:

If the sea could dream, and if the sea
were dreaming now, the dream
would be the usual one: Of the Flesh.
The letter written in the dream would go
something like: "Forgive me -- love, Blue."

Many of the poems Mr. Phillips writes are of the flesh -- which is to say that they're poems of sleeping and dreaming, of forgiveness, of longing for someone or fearing you'll lose him, of letters signed with love. What is surprising is not that his subject is "the usual one," but to see it written about with classical richness in an age determined to treat it as base -- as smut or, worse, a way to sell beer or blue jeans. Mr. Phillips has an eye for detail that is matched only by his willingness to look for it anywhere -- in Greek myths, in printed bedsheets, in snapshots and Renaissance paintings, in his favorite cafe, in poems by Yeats and Li Po. What he finds he uses so inventively that his invention rubs off: You start looking at the ordinary world with your eyes open wider, searching it for new meanings.

Poor Eros: sadly, as in the boning of fowl
or of angels in defeat, someone has snapped
his wings off, and now, fitted out in his

leatherette sash, spitting bad Greek from
either side of a mouth not at all like the
mouth in his pictures, he goes thin and un-

recognized.

That's the beginning of "Elegy," a poem in Mr. Phillips's first collection, In the Blood, which was published by Northeastern University Press as the winner of the 1992 Morse Poetry Prize. Cortege, brought out last year by Graywolf Press, is a candidate this week for a prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award.

Mr. Phillips, an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, is spending this year here at his alma mater, Harvard University, where he's teaching two poetry workshops -- or trying to. Explaining spondees and sestinas is easy enough, but telling students what makes a poem -- that's tough. "I'm sort of asking them to do something that I can't define how to get to," he says. "I can only show them and say, 'Don't you see it, too?' In some poems it's epiphany. In others it's a sudden snapping off of the breath."

He is known, indeed, to make epiphany the week's assignment -- on the first day of class, yet. In writing his own poems he is more deliberate: "I sort of get a line in my head -- it's floating around for a week. I think, Here's another word that goes with that line. I sit, usually Sunday morning, with a sheet of words. And if anything's going to happen, it happens quickly."

At 37, Mr. Phillips affects an amiable and slightly skeptical reserve. He started writing poems when he was a teen-ager. "I was a nerdy kid," he says. "Maybe it has to do with creating your own world. For some people, it's easier to create a world that you can rely on, that travels with you." For some, he continues, "it's easier to stay in than to have kids ask you 'Is that your real mom?' because she's white and you're not."

He came to Harvard on a scholarship, in return for which he had a series of jobs "cleaning out bathrooms and waxing floors." Instead of a sense of privilege, he had doubts. "You could be made to feel that affirmative action was the only reason you were here. And that doesn't do anything but make you an overachiever."

He married a woman he met at Harvard and spent eight years teaching Latin in schools. He had long since stopped writing poems, but in 1990, struggling with his sexuality, he started again -- In the Blood was the result. Cortege chronicles his first year of knowing Doug Macomber, who is now his partner. Mr. Phillips says none of his poems is "proven to be autobiographical," but their tenderness betrays him, as in "Domestic":

... this is another of
those things I'm always forgetting
to tell you, or don't choose to
tell you, or I tell you but only

in the same way, each morning, I
keep myself from saying too loud I
love you until the moment you flush
the toilet, then I say it, when the
rumble of water running down through
the house could mean anything: flood,

your feet descending the stairs any
moment; any moment the whole world,
all I want of the world, coming down.

Mr. Phillips has a third book finished, which he plans to call In the Devotions. It grows, in part, out of his having moved to St. Louis three years ago, when Washington University hired him. He and Mr. Macomber found that life in the Midwest took some getting used to. When they invited other faculty members over, some of them seemed not to know what to expect in the home of an ordinary gay couple -- "they looked like they expected maybe a dungeon in the basement," Mr. Phillips says. But, he says, before he came out he might have expected the same. He's glad that his example can teach students otherwise.

What concerns him still is that he has "been criticized by the African-American community for failing to address the black audience." He finds the criticism curious, because it suggests that black readers would be, for some reason, less able than others to puzzle out his poems.

He realizes that some of his grammar is intricate, for any reader, and also that he refers to people -- Ophelia, Fra Lippo Lippi, Langston Hughes -- who despite considerable reputations have never been on Leno or Letterman. It helps if you paid attention in class yourself, back when people were trying to teach you about satyrs, Leda and the swan, Scheherazade, but you can always look them up. It helps, too, if you read patiently, hearing each word and picturing every detail. "Sometimes I feel poets are trying too hard to say, 'Look, poetry is accessible -- here's a poem I wrote about my dog,'" Mr. Phillips says. He believes reader and poet alike should make a commitment to the work, and the reward, of reading.

After all, the reward of a liberal-arts education is this exactly: To be able to read a poem of your own time, and enjoy it, and carry it with you for the rest of your week, fitting it to new situations, letting it explain them for you. This works, say, with Auden -- with "Musee des Beaux Arts" -- and it works with many of Mr. Phillips's poems, perhaps because the flesh he writes of is not, in the end, black or white or gay or straight or classical or modern. It is merely the flesh, a stock of dreams and glances and sighs that we all keep in common. And he has made himself its poet.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 22, 1996.