Phillips’s fifth collection is a difficult one of lean, stubbornly metaphysical lyrics. The poems are difficult because they seem to arise out of nothing, and then do their best to stay there, hovering over their own abyss. The most immediately striking aspect of his new poems is the line, at once flexible and choppy, its syntax full of dips, stutters, and curlicued qualifications: “It is for, you see, eventually the deer to / take it, the fruit / hangs there.” It is typical of Phillips to withhold the sentence’s subject to the last, whipping it forth like a rabbit from his hat, but one also sees that the trick is not entirely superfluous or show-offy: the phrase ends neatly with its point. The music here is an admittedly cerebral one, and the poems are enjoyable, like late James, as much for the length and intricacy of their twistings as for the actual content—which is sometimes hard to make out past the gorgeous patterns. But there is content, and much of it is passionately flourished. Many poems concern desire, the ways it may be satisfied, deferred, or disappointed: “The hunt—was good; the kill, / less so, as you’d said to / expect. I don’t listen, always.” The metaphor of the hunt is one of Phillips’s favorites, and he doesn’t shy away from either the brutality or the tenderness it calls for. The empathy of Phillips’s work, especially when set off against his remarkably austere language, is terrific and moving.
The strength of these poems is their sinuosity of thought. In the best cases, that hard thought flowers into feeling and makes the poems memorable.