Thursday, April 23, 2020

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips


Review by Ed Meek

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. $24.00.

Poetry is always the subject of the poem—Rowan Ricardo Phillips

I had NPR on in the fall and I heard poem called “Violins” read by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. I loved the sound of it. Words are repeated and then rhymed and off-rhymed linking sounds and concepts and combining jarring images and language. The poem ends with a date: 1916 and it expresses a bold vision of the 20th century. It’s the best poem in Phillips’ new collection. It begins “He never saw a violin. / But he saw a lifetime of violence.” Right away Phillips makes this unlikely association of violins and violence—a apt comment on our current era of privilege and Black Lives Matter. He goes on:

This is not to presume
That if he had simply seen

A violin he would have seen
Less violence. Or that living among

Violins … would have made the violence
Less crack and more cocaine …

That is a cool phrase comparing the explosive effect of crack to the more sustained cocaine and perhaps making the statement that even if you inhabit the world of Harvard and Brown, if you are African-American, you may still be subject to violence, “why god oh why” Phillips says. He goes from there into a meta-comment on poetry, something he does throughout the book:

More of one thing
Doesn’t rhyme with one thing.

A swill of stars doesn’t rhyme
With star. A posse of poets doesn’t rhyme

With poet. We are all in prison.
This is the brutal lesson of the twenty-first century.

Phillips then brings in the “fiddler” who watches us while we eat. Ironically, Trump posed as a fiddler recently.

So, there’s a lot going on here. In this poem, Phillips seems to be embodying the “living weapon” who is striking out against injustice. If the “we” he refers to represents African-Americans, the claim that we are all in prison makes sense. For the rest of us, not so much. Although, as this Pandemic goes on, it is really beginning to feel like house arrest. Throughout the book, Phillips makes a commentary on poetry, on what it is and what its role is. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about the fictional dream and how if the author steps out of the story to talk about the story, as a lot of meta-fiction does, the author risks losing the audience. That happens often in Living Weapon. All poems make a comment on poetry without explicitly saying so. Whenever Phillips explicitly does so, I want him to just get back to the poem.

In Living Weapon Phillips has a running commentary on history, myth and poetry, and how it bears on life in the present. He is an erudite poet and he likes to make reference to earlier poets, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Eliot, Donne, and all the way back to Homer. It isn’t a big surprise to find out that he has a PhD in English Literature from Brown. This is his third book of poems. He has also written essays and translations. He has won many awards including the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Prize for Poetry, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. He’s been a Guggenheim Fellow and he has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton. He lives in NYC and Barcelona.

Here is Phillips talking to Orpheus in “The Testament of Orpheus.”

You start to tell me, then you simply tell me,
And as soon as you do you disappear
From the cab. It happened so quickly,
The turn. I remember you singing. Here
I am and my body is, my mind is
All labyrinth laired with trillium and word
And sun and moon and echo and I think
To keep going but shut the hell up, fold
Back into the cab, and close the door.
This is not about us. The drained sky meets
The drained moon in a compromise of dawn.
We are the morning’s lingering lamplights
Mulling lullabies in our useless heads.
And love is the sun’s power as it spreads.

Living Weapon is prefaced with a poem by Wallace Stevens that begins: “Far in the woods they sang their unreal songs / Secure.” Phillips sees himself in the tradition of singing and poetry as song so the poem to Orpheus fits into that notion. The poem is, you may have noticed, a sonnet. Philips is comfortable using forms. He is at times eloquent: “labyrinth laired with trillium” and “morning’s lingering lamplights” and “Mulling lullabies.” And he’s not afraid to make a statement about love; our heads may be useless these days, but love still has power.

It’s a compelling package that Phillips brings to the table. He quotes Jessica Care Moore in the opening pages: “I ain’t scared of none of this.” The quote follows the poem by Wallace Stevens (one of the most cerebral of our poets) at the beginning of the book. Phillips attempts to combine a woke perspective with his vast knowledge of poetry from the past. In the final poem “Dark Matter,” Phillips is projecting into the future, speaking to a child in a crib:  “That you asleep in your crib were a god / In the machine and that poem your father / wrote you was a fucking living weapon.”

Language can be as Donne said, an “instrument,” a “weapon.” Can poetry play that role? Is Rowan Ricardo Phillips a warrior and his poetry a living weapon? He certainly has a few arrows in his quill.

Are there other poets who are living weapons? Lawrence Joseph maybe. Robert Bly back in the day. Alan Ginsberg in Howl. Writers of nonfiction like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Ta Nehisi Coates. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, (and many others), activist Greta Thunberg. Because of the artificiality of our age, the simulacrum we inhabit, we search for authenticity in our artists. The artists and activists listed above all have it. It is highly valued in our culture. Lizzo, Cardi B., Beyonce, Drake, all have it. Jay Z once had it but he’s now a long way from Bed Sty. Rowan Ricardo Phillips claims to have it but in doing so, he’s entering Kanye territory. I’m not a fan.

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