Earthly desires

Gorgeous new poems about human entanglements and the fantasy of escape.

Topics: Books,

In a field,” Mark Strand famously claimed, “I am the absence of field.” Put Carl Phillips in a field, on the other hand, and absence is the last thing on his mind. In “Pastoral,” fields and the animals that run through them represent Phillips’ fertile vision of the intersection of desire, loss and morality. Trying to make sense of how the three impinge upon one another has been Phillips’ project in his three previous books, and he continues it here as a way of investigating the nature of longing.

Phillips gathers his concerns together in the book’s opening poem, which describes “A Kind of Meadow”:

— shored

by trees at its far ending,

as is the way in moral tales:

whether trees as trees actually,

for their shadow and what

inside of it

hides, threatens, calls to;

or as ever-wavering conscience,

cloaked now, and called Chorus;

or between these, whatever

falls upon the rippling and measurable,

but none to measure it, thin

fabric of this stands for.

What Phillips’ meadow “stands for” is a kind of stage on which human emotion and entanglements are played out, something akin to the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but darker. Whimsy and comedic relief are nowhere to be found. Throughout “Pastoral,” there is frequent wrestling with God and the body (described, memorably, as “wild loam” at one point), and much shoring up against the inevitable damage that occurs over every lifetime. In “Abundance,” Phillips asks with urgency:

Remember the buck, stepping free

of the dark wood,

of the wood’s shadow, as if

just for you? And the antlers, you said simply,

branching like hands or

like trees.

I thought of the branching of mistake when

presumed over,


on all sides at once it sports a fist

full of blooms.

What you must call the blooms,

call them. Prayers; these willed disclosures.

Phillips is a master of allegory, and he’s able to sustain his power even when he sends his creations off the page and into the world. In “Hymn,” the stag returns, and Phillips uses it as a steppingstone to the emotional core of his poem. Returning to his dusky field once more, he writes:

Less the shadow

than you a stag, sudden, through it.

Less the stag breaking cover than

the antlers, with which


Less the antlers as trees leafless,

to either side of the stag’s head, than —

between them — the vision that must

mean, surely, rescue.

Less the rescue.

More, always, the ache

toward it.

It’s an elegant game of leapfrog, and Phillips’ symbolism and inverted syntax do nothing to diminish the force of the argument he’s making: To be human is to wallow forever in the knowledge that we cannot love — or save — each other nearly as well or as much as we’d like to.

Indeed, wants and the manner in which they go unfulfilled play a large part in “Pastoral.” In the first poem of a series called “And Fitful Memories of Pan,” Phillips bemoans the inevitability of succumbing to desire: “The argument that rules out/excess must be/a slim one, for see/how easily, again, I have/ignored it.” Wanting makes him feel like “that thing the gods do what they will with,” and he ends the poem on a wistful note:


the curse of hunger its

obverse, rubbed naturally

past luster:

custom weighs

more than shine — as,

more than custom

weighs loss, that field that,

if of late I step outside it,

I shall return to at that hour

when, if light could ache, most

achingly the light

tips across it.

“Pastoral” is a gorgeous book, shocking, at moments, for its beauty. It consitutes its own world, one tinged with mysticism but still firmly rooted in reality. Phillips has achieved something noble by creating this little universe. With their parablelike simplicity, his poems rise far above the crowd of verses down on earth.

The fantasy of leaving Earth behind altogether animates “Isolato,” Larissa Szporluk’s second book. The centerpiece is a series entitled “Seven Maria,” “maria” being, she tells us, “‘seas’ or great dark plains on the moon’s surface.” What follows are seven poems about the attractions of escape as represented by outer space. Thankfully, Szporluk never lets her reveries degenerate to a low-budget sci-fi level. In “Mare Desiderii,” she writes thrillingly of living on the moon, where “June summons June across the planet;/the sun this year is silver,/just a sliver in your eyes./Maybe you can live/in full aversion. Maybe you can limn/the far side of the moon.”

Sure enough, however, conscience rears its ugly head, even millions of miles from home:

But some night God is going to come

way up here and find you

erotically divided,

moving like two swans

one with a slight lead, the other

with a cache of food …

A warm hate

will loosen in your throat:

Don’t speak, you’ll motion to Him,

None of us can face it.

There seems to be no escape from the guilt and contingencies of life on Earth, after all, but that doesn’t mean the pull is lessened. In the last “Mare” poem, “Mare Incognito,” she writes:

The moon makes my son go silent.

It sucks the fight from his mind,

leaving him hollow in my arms,

like a final piece of tunnel

diminished between lights.

I lose him to the brighter world;

the dark one vibrates with alarm.

It’s a haunted view of things: the idea that there is always another world where we might be living in another manner entirely. In “Mare Nubium,” Szporluk regards a stranger who has stopped to watch her children playing in the yard, and suddenly recognizes that he is “frozen in a process/of his own, in which the children figure as dilations,/the double-life of something that went wrong,/that turned around inside the cornea.”

This idea of self-alienation is picked up elsewhere in “Isolato” as well, primarily in a poem with the somewhat unimaginative title “Doppelganger.”

Thought I loved light in the morning.

Thought I loved food.

Thought I saw my son

running from a diamondback,

tears in the billions …

Then, after a strange little sidestep into a scenario involving a screaming bird, Szporluk concludes: “Thought I had authority./Thought I had a stake./Didn’t know me.” Alas, “Doppelganger” has none of the spookiness that makes the “Maria” poems work so well. Its workmanlike diction only robs it of the otherworldliness it takes as its subject.

Szporluk runs into language problems elsewhere, too. In “Hatch No. 2,” a generally affecting poem about a failed relationship and the child it produced, she starts off with some wonderfully sinuous lines:

Can’t see a thing for the snow,

its rabid, haywire blowing,

something bigger than us

on a binge, plucking, skinning,

boning, the lie in my heart.

But then she lapses into a kind of colloquial chattiness that jars:

Can’t see my ex in his bright

existence, new live-in woman,

new business.

There is fine language in almost every poem in “Isolato,” and Szporluk clearly has high standards, but at certain moments it’s as though she didn’t have quite enough time for final revisions. One poem in particular, “Leaving the Eccentric,” does a beautiful job of spooling out its metaphor of a queen fish fighting her way to a certain spring every year to be near her king, only to leave as soon as she arrives and realizes that he is supposed to eat her. But it sags at its conclusion, where Szporluk asks, “Are blood and love just things that run,/and if they’re not, do they belong/to what they are, or to the place/they’re running to or from, and what/if that’s the point of life, to turn/your back into your front/and mount the beast again?” The rambling tone and unfocused language give the impression that Szporluk isn’t fully engaged in her ontological search; it’s more like she’s considering it for the first time. The search is not nearly as well thought out or expressed as, say, her ideas about life on the moon.

Still, those ideas alone make Szporluk worth reading. Who hasn’t wished to escape life on Earth once or twice? We recognize our own daydreams in her lunar reveries.

Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic.

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