Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Reading Carl Phillips

The poets Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey asked me to look at this poem. Carl Phillips is not one of my favorite poets, mainly because I feel he is a one trick pony (although it is one hell of a trick). His poems depend on three basic techniques (which all create the same effect) to achieve almost all of their tension, and once you know how the trick works, his work can get boring fast. Add to that the fact that 90% of his poems are about one of two topics; unrequited desire, or ecstasy (sexual, romantic, or religious) experienced for a short time, that recedes. But, if you can’t see the tricks, his work can seem amazing. (For the record, I’m not saying these techniques shouldn’t be used by poets, only that if this is primarily what one does, or all one says, things can get mighty dull).
For example- there is a well known philosophical dilemma which goes; If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This can appear to be an unsolvable paradox, when the tree hits the ground we know it makes a sound, but if no one hears it how could there be a sound? The key is understanding that the word “sound” has two very different meanings which usually can be used interchangeably. One is “sound” as the waves generated, the other is “sound” as the waves being perceived. In normal speech a slight difference such as this isn’t usually important, but in this question it is crucial, because each side of the paradox relies on a different definition. As your mind bounces back and forth between the two definitions it seems like there’s a paradox, because one definition (waves generated) requires a "yes" answer and the other (waves perceived) requires a "no" answer, but it’s just a trick of the language. If we replace the word “sound” or define it one way or the other, the answer is clear. (If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it generate sonic waves? YES. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, are the sonic waves perceived? NO). This “dilemma” doesn’t really tell us much about the world, except, if you think you’ve found a paradox, double-check the language it is written in first. Here we have a word, which conceals a usually unrecognized double entendre, and Carl Phillips uses this kind of pun (often of a sexual nature) over and over and over in his poems to make us (often unknowingly) bounce between two different definitions. He also knows that in English, word order affects the meaning of a sentence; “I left the keys in the car” means something different than “I left the car in the Keys”. Phillips uses convoluted syntax to create ambiguity in his sentences, often to make the reader bounce between different meanings (Dickinson was fond of this technique). The third trick is, he uses sentences which negate (or appear to negate) themselves, i.e. “The sentence after this is true. The sentence before this is false.” This is a circular argument, which in Logic is invalid, because neither statement can be verified, but in a poem, who’s checking the validity of the logic of the sentences? (Besides me) Once again we bounce between two different poles, with no resolution even possible. In the poem below he (like Wallace Stevens) employs all three techniques to create tension, and employs them to stunning effect.



King of Hearts


Somewhere now, someone is missing him,
since here he is for the taking, nicked
at three of his four corners, decked out

in the fade of much play, his two heads
laid prone on the sidewalk before you.

Like you, in this heat and humidity, no
wind, when it comes, moves him. Like you,

he knows a thing, maybe, about wilting—
how, like sleep or some particularly

miserable defeat played over but this time
in slow motion, it has its own fine beauty.

*

Tonight,
once you’ve found him, when you’ve

brought him home, the man with a face as
close as you’ll ever get to the other one,

the one it was easy enough, earlier, not to
pick up, to step on, even, and move slowly

but unbothered away from, you’ll only remember

the part about wilting.
And even that, as

you lift his ass toward you, as your hands
spread it open until it resembles nothing

so much as a raw heart but with a seemingly
endless hole through it—even that will

fade.
Him, between drink and the good money

you’ve paid, doing whatever you tell him.
Him throwing back whatever words you hand out.

You’re the king, you’re the king, him saying.

The title refers to either a playing card, or some pretty Casanova type guy who sleeps around, and is fallen in love with, but commits to no one. The key question in this poem is, who is the “him” of the first line? It is both the king on the card and the Casanova guy. Notice the double entendres; “here for the taking” (the card and the man), “nicked at three of his four corners”(the card literally, the man metaphorically), “decked out” (out of the deck), “fade of much play” (the card and the man), in black street slang "decked out in the fade of much play" can also mean "wearing a hairstyle (a fade) that is common", “two heads”(of the card, and of the man), “when it comes”. Also the word “wilting” and the phrases “missing him”, and “miserable defeat” will acquire new referents by the poem’s end. So in the first part of the poem we bounce between the image on the card (which is a symbol) and the actual Casanova guy.
In the second section Phillips introduces a new lover whom the speaker compares to “the other one”, the King on the card. The word “wilting” in the second section, now has a slightly different meaning, that is –to melt in the presence of desire. In the next sentence Phillips uses the second half of a simile to do double work, the simile is “until it resembles nothing/ so much as a raw heart but with a seemingly/ endless hole through it”, here “as a raw heart but with a seemingly
endless hole through it” not only describes the “ass” of the temporary lover, but also the emotional condition of the speaker. In the line “ –even that will fade” Phillips is referring to the “wilting”, returning it to its previous meaning, and the wordplay should be obvious (the wilting fades). Phillips finishes the poem by having the new lover refer to the speaker as “the king” which he is because he is momentarily in charge, and the aggressor in this sex act, and is not ,(because he is still subject to his desire and his control will “fade”). This reference also implie that he is headed towards the same destiny as the Casanova guy/face on the card. The first line of the poem now means that the speaker is not the only one who is in this predicament, there are others like him. And in all fairness, I do think that this particular poem does an excellent job of illustrating the difficulty of romantic relationships and encounters.
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