The most beautiful bathroom in America is located at 208 West Thirteenth Street in New York, on the second floor of Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center. In 1989, just nine months before he would die of AIDS-related complications, the artist Keith Haring covered the bathroom’s walls with one of the great works of twentieth-century visual art, a mural entitled Once Upon a Time. In his cartoonishly thick black lines, Haring created a joyously obscene phantasmagoria of unleashed gay male promiscuity: men fucking each other and sucking each other off, but also men with penises for hands and feet and heads, anthropomorphic penises sprouting their own arms and legs, men riding huge cocks like rockets, their arms raised in triumph, a group of four men climbing—or maybe they’re humping it—the long neck of a penis-dinosaur. Male bodies penetrate and are penetrated in possible and impossible ways, to such an extent that it’s often difficult to know where one body ends and another begins. There’s no protection; everyone rides bareback. Men are ejaculated from penises, parthenogenetic, engendered by jouissance. The mural is often seen as an ebullient celebration of sexual liberation, and of the defiant, resilient, heroic sexual communities that would be decimated by and survive AIDS, and it is. It’s also a celebration of gay male folk art, pornographic bathroom graffiti as dreamed by Picasso and Dalí. But it’s not only a celebration. It’s also a lament, as signaled by its title, equal parts fairy tale and elegy; it’s also a nightmare. The space around Haring’s penises is filled not just with his usual wavy lines signaling motion or vibrating energy, but with drops of semen, which shoot out of cocks maybe a little like machine gun fire (though are those bullets or hearts?), and by gargantuan tadpoles of sperm, at least one of which has a single X for an eye, that stick-figure sign of death; a sign too, surely, of the viral load it bears. The human figures are ecstatic, bacchanalian, enraptured; they’re also, at least some of them, sacrificial, as agonized as any lost soul in Bosch; whether they’re suffering transfiguration or disfigurement, it’s hard to say. A work of joy, yes, and also a work of rage, at the fact of AIDS and at America’s criminal indifference in the face of it, which would ensure, which continues to ensure, the deaths of hundreds of thousands; and also, it has seemed to me, a work of terror in the face of desire itself, which both exalts and deforms us. As one stands in the little room they adorn, the initial shock Haring’s images may cause is replaced by a profound feeling of awe, of being face to face with something bottomless, overwhelming, infinite, something that at once dwarfs us and shows us the immense scale of ourselves. Many gay men I know call the bathroom at the LGBT Center our Sistine Chapel, and that seems to me pretty much right, both in the company it claims for Haring’s genius and in the sense of the sacred I feel there. The terror Haring’s mural captures is a religious terror, I think, its joy a religious joy, by which I mean that they respond to forces that exhaust our reason and master our will.
Over more than three decades and thirteen books of poems, Carl Phillips has been conducting an inquiry into intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, that is as daring, as wild, and as reverent—as unflinching—as the inquiry I read in Haring’s mural. Central to this inquiry has been an analogy drawn repeatedly between what one might call marginalized sexual practices, especially cruising and gay male promiscuity, but also sadomasochism, and religious devotion. This analogy is made in several ways, at least three of which are evident in a famous early poem, “Hymn,” from Pastoral, Phillips’s fourth book. The first mode of analogy is the drawing of what we might call imagistic likenesses, which I think we see in the sixth and seventh tercets: “the stranger’s // strange room entered not for prayer / but for striking / prayer’s attitude.” This kind of likeness appears often in Phillips’s work. “If / I go down on whoever tells me to, is it prayer, / isn’t it, did I pray // enough?” a man asks in a much later poem, “In This World to Be Lost.” The tone is starkly different, but this kind of metaphor is of a piece with a certain strain of gay male vernacular, the camp idiom of worshipping at a handsome man’s church or clutching one’s rosary or wearing out one’s knees with prayer. The impulse in such gestures is always double: an assault upon convention, maybe a little blasphemy, on one hand, but also an arrogation of value, an assertion of prestige. Even in very early poems, Phillips was able to make this familiar gesture revelatory. In “King of Hearts,” from Cortège, for example, there’s a passage that still occasions wonder: “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.” Phillips’s writing of the queer body is remarkable for many things, not least his lack of squeamishness when it comes to anal sex—to what remains, even in our age of marriage equality, the unspeakable fact of the penetrable male body. And here, in a bravura figure, Phillips finds in a man’s ass a mystic’s vision: the raw heart he compares it to is Christ’s sacred heart; the alluring, perilous entranceway of the anus is made the infinite hole torn by Herbert’s “Christ-side-piercing spear.” This gesture still seems bold in 2019; but Cortège was published in 1995, at the height of the AIDS crisis, in those panicked years before the development of protease inhibitors, and in that context Phillips’s poem seems to me astonishing, a heroically defiant claim of sacredness made on behalf of demonized bodies.
The second mode of analogy Phillips uses to link sex and religion we might call conceptual likeness, and we see it in the most famous lines from “Hymn,” beginning in the ninth stanza:
When I think of desire,
it is in the same way that I do
God: as parable, any steep
and blue water, things that are always
there, they only wait
to be sounded.
And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps
should ask pardon.
The lines are so beautifully serene, so assured in their eloquence, that it can be easy to miss the extremity and nuance of metaphorical work being done. Desire is compared to God, but the comparison is hedged: it isn’t the things themselves that are being compared, exactly, but the way the poet thinks of them, a distinction it’s easy to lose sight of in the likenesses that follow the colon, “steep / and blue water” and “parable,” which share with each other, with desire, with God, and with the speaker’s thinking, qualities of omnipresence and depth, a depth that at least promises to be interpretable: they all “wait // to be sounded.” What’s really remarkable, though, is the transformation the next line enacts, when the poet himself becomes a fourth element in his own metaphor, so that we are no longer considering God and desire merely, or our way of thinking of them, but also what that thinking makes of us: a sounding stone, a tool for measuring depth. This is a weirdly penitential and paradoxical image, the poet stripped of volition, stripped of the very intelligence that has created the metaphor he’s lost himself in, able now only to fall. To fall, and to “ask pardon.” But how can a stone ask pardon, ask anything at all? Even if it only asks “a little bit,” even if only “perhaps,” a doubled qualification typical of Phillips; often he will say something and then almost entirely—the “almost” is important—unsay it.
As I lose myself in quandary, I’ve already begun to explore Phillips’s third mode of analogy between erotic and religious experience, which I think is the most profound, both in terms of the content of Phillips’s thought and the singular aesthetic he has forged, an aesthetic characterized most of all by a restlessness evident in shifting, ever-mobile figuration, and in questing, recursive syntax. Consider the opening lines of “Hymn”:
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
The poem opens with a recessional formula (less the x than the y), each image presented already in retreat, already discarded for an alternative discarded in turn as the poet’s attention moves from shadow to a beloved or desired “you,” who is glimpsed for a mere instant before being transformed, via metaphor, into a stag emerging from shadow. The metaphor, once introduced, displaces the human figure, as the poet shifts his attention from the stag to the antlers he lifts. Here the pattern breaks, the sentence is allowed to expand, the next image—trees leafless—is a return, as I take it, to the literal situation: a man has stepped from an autumn wood into a clearing; the poet, seeing his head framed by bare branches, has fancifully thought him a stag. (Not that it’s mere fancy: the line between human and animal, reason and urge, the question of whether and how it can or should be crossed, is one of Phillips’s abiding obsessions.) But this return of the literal is presented paradoxically in simile—“less the antlers as trees leafless”—so that the return is delayed a moment more, as is the pattern of dismissal: we still see the antlers. And this delay allows, in a moving turn, for the recuperation of the human object: “less the antlers as trees leafless / . . . than— / between them—the vision that must / mean, surely, rescue.” That vision, occluded by abstraction, is a human face, a beloved face, I think, the promise of “rescue”—rescue perhaps from the vision of the stranger’s room that follows, from inexhaustible desire. But the sequence doesn’t end here. In one final recessional move, we leave the object behind, the external world altogether; we end not with the object but with the speaker’s ache toward that object, that is with desire. And here we stay, not with the desired object but with desire itself, the poem’s recessional formula decisively broken: not “less x than y,” now, but “More, always.” But that isn’t right; we don’t stay here, since of course it’s the nature of desire to move, the ache we feel is always an “ache / toward.” And so after all these lines nothing is resolved, nothing is finally arrived at, arrival isn’t the point; the point is an articulation of restlessness, achieved through rhetorical and conceptual means that I think have a particular pedigree in the tradition of apophatic theology, the via negativa, the disciplined path not of knowledge but of “unknowing.”
The argument I want to make is that Carl Phillips has used sex as a mode of philosophical inquiry—“fucking a way forward,” as he puts it in a poem from Silverchest, sex, as he writes in another poem from the same volume, having “at last become / an added sense by which to pass ungently but more / entirely across a life.” The subject of this inquiry has been, on the one hand, what the subject always is: how should a person be, understood in these poems both as a question of how one should be in one’s most charged and intimate encounters with others, that is as an erotic, affective being; and also how one should be in relation to one’s self, how one should negotiate between the claims of desire and the claims of that shifting, uncertain thing we call morality. The second branch of Phillips’s inquiry has attempted to explore the experiential and metaphysical limits of what sex can be and do, an attempt which leads thought beyond reason, into a wilderness in which it can seem at times as though everything is at stake: not just one’s relationships with others or one’s moral standing but one’s coherence as a self, one’s very survival. I think we see something of this wilderness, and of the fear it provokes, in “Hymn”: not just in the “inevitably black car” of death but more profoundly in the extinguishing of individuality we see in the final image, the poet one stone among indistinguishable countless others, an erasure of the self. These branching inquiries have led Phillips to a remarkable exploration of the tension between competing desires or impulses that he has framed as a series of dichotomies, dichotomies that he interrogates to the point of dissolution: domesticity and wildness, indulgence and restraint, stability and restlessness, safety and risk, even risk so unbridled that he has called it, at times, “suicidal.” In exploring these impulses, Phillips’s goal has not been to adjudicate between them, much less to reconcile them, but instead to make the tension between them, their irresolvability, itself a tool for further inquiry. This has produced a poetry of shimmering, ever mobile negotiation, the intellectual rigor of which is both remarkable and takes a particular form. Its closest analogue, as I’ve already suggested, is apophatic theology, the mode of religious thinking—of thinking about absolute experience—that characterizes what we often call mysticism. This mode, the via negativa, involves rhetorical moves we’ve already seen in “Hymn”: a strategy of negating or otherwise destabilizing every assertion, of troubling and multiplying likenesses, of dissolving dichotomies—exterior, interior; subject, object; self, other—pursued so rigorously that it becomes, as in the philosophy of Plotinus or Meister Eckhart or Marguerite Porete, a way of pursuing thought beyond reason. I don’t mean to argue that Phillips is in any conventional sense a religious poet, though his poetry, like Emily Dickinson’s, is saturated with religious imagery and ideas often put to startlingly unexpected and secular use. I mean to argue instead that for Phillips, as “Hymn” suggests, the limit-experience of sex, particularly what we might call “extreme” sex, is similar to the mystic’s limit-experience of God in the way that it confounds discursive rationality and courts the bewilderment and even the extinction of the self. I recognize that an analogy between sexual and religious experience is a familiar one: we have a single language for religious and erotic devotion, a fact poets and mystics have long exploited; and it has long been suspected that there is an orgasmic quality to the ecstasy mystics describe as divine union. But the intensity of Phillips’s engagement with mystical discourse, and its queer embodiment in gay male sexual communities and sexual practices, especially in communities and practices that continue to be marginalized and reviled, seems genuinely radical to me, as does his commitment, as he puts it in The Art of Daring, a little philosophical treatise masquerading as a craft book, to “that daring that can bring us—loss and brokenness in tow—to unknowing.”
Phillips has said that some readers have felt that he “stopped writing gay poetry” after In the Blood and Cortège. That’s a little hard to understand, given the sexual candor evident throughout his career. Maybe what those readers are responding to is the disappearance, more or less, of a certain kind of sociality after those first two books—of gay clubs and drag queens and nude beaches. But what remains, and what is explored from beginning to end in Phillips’s work, is the peculiarly gay male sociality of cruising, a kind of organized promiscuity: the practice of men picking one another up, and sometimes having sex, in public spaces: parks, say, or piers, or department store bathrooms. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways that cruising seems to me analogous to lyric poetry: the way it heightens awareness and receptivity, the way it depends upon a system of coded communication, the way it carves out privacy from public spaces as poetry carves out privacy from public language. The resemblance is strongest in the particular changes cruising works on time, generating a lyric expansiveness while also divorcing value from duration. (Phillips has written that Auden’s great poem “Aubade”—the one that begins “Lay your sleeping head, my love”—first made him realize that the transience of an erotic encounter need not negate an expression of valuable love. This is also, we might note, a primary theme of America’s great poet of cruising as social and sexual and democratic practice, Walt Whitman.)
A poem like “Storm,” from Phillips’s tenth collection, Speak Low, explicitly examines the mores and mechanics of cruising. We’re outside, among cypress and catalpa trees, among “shadows that / strut the dark.” The poem traces the many negotiations cruising entails, the rejection of one man (“What the fuck do you think you’re / looking at,” he says), the eventual invitation of another. Cruising is a game of sudden reversals, and it’s fascinating not least for the way it can disarticulate often-grouped impulses—desire, sex, arousal, love—in order to join them instead with impulses that are less obviously complementary: indifference, anonymity, detachment. Cruising is exciting and potentially revelatory for the way that it sets these impulses and responses in motion, one melting into another in mysterious and surprising ways. Here are the final lines of “Storm”:
He touches himself here,
and here. Directive.
Turns his face away. It can look like ransom. Now it looks
like privilege, now recklessness, now triumph, gravel-and-blood,
humiliation, lovely, now strict refrain, he taketh my hand
A complicated emotional transaction takes place in these lines. We begin with what seems like one man’s entirely instrumental use of another: he doesn’t even deign to give his directive in words. That instrumental use is signaled even more emphatically by the turning away of the face, which is a refusal not just of intimacy, but even of recognition. The poem then goes through a remarkable and remarkably unstable catalogue of likenesses, though what they are likenesses of is unclear, I think: the “it” in “It can look like” and “Now it looks like” has no immediately obvious antecedent, another feature Phillips’s poems often share with writing in the apophatic tradition. Against a repeating, insistent “now” the lines offer radically incompatible concepts: “ransom” and “privilege,” “triumph” and “humiliation,” the apparent incoherence heightened when syntax itself seems to fall away, the sequence of abstract nouns broken by the weird, concrete kenning, “gravel-and-blood,” a glimpse of scene, maybe, and by the adjective “lovely,” which is strikingly at odds with the words that flank it, “humiliation” and “strict.” But after this tumbling, destabilizing catalogue the sentence rights itself; functional syntax returns, but returns transformed, in a different register for a radically different gesture: “he taketh my hand / in his.” It’s difficult for me to account for how moving I find this moment. Indifference, instrumental use, the denial of recognition have been transformed into tenderness, human communion. Transformed by eros, I think, by the mysterious communication that is sex, by the possibility—for cruelty, for generosity, for reprieve—in any encounter between human beings. The whole of what has preceded is sanctified by the sudden uplift of the archaic conjugation, which bathes the whole of the encounter in dignity, or that’s how I experience it, raised as I was on the King James Version of the Bible. An encounter in the woods, which seen by an outsider might seem sordid or degrading, is opened up to us here as a profoundly human exchange, and given the resonance of a psalm.
Tenderness, I said a moment ago, and I think that’s right. But it’s also true that part of Phillips’s project is to trouble and interrogate what words like “tenderness” mean, to explore what he calls in “Tunnel” “the different, more difficult / tenderness that is two men with only their briefly shared / flesh in common.” This is the project, I think, in a poem like “Neon,” from Silverchest. “Storm” is explicit in presenting a scene of cruising, but many of Phillips’s poems are more circumspect; a sensitivity to the possibility of erotic encounter gives a different resonance to his obsession with fields and woods and clearings, with sudden apparitions on foggy evenings. (Sensitizing us in this manner is one way the poems make reading them an experience akin to cruising.) I often find myself hedging my bets when reading a Phillips poem, as I might when noticing a man loitering in a particular patch of shadow in a park, though that isn’t really the way to put it; the poems refuse to settle into any single reading, they insist on inhabiting multiple possibilities. What should we make of the first line of “Neon,” for instance, almost the only unqualified statement in the poem’s first half? “A boy walks out into a grayish distance, and he never comes back.” It could be a scene of cruising, of erotic rejection, of possibility lost. “Boy” could be a queer colloquialism, denoting not so much age as a certain kind of erotic object. Or is this an actual boy? Is it an image of the poet, or of the poet’s youth, some lost aspect of himself? The next line makes me think that last thought might be a good one, though the line flickers, barely uttering a word before taking it back: “It’s the past, and it isn’t. It’s forever. And it isn’t.” The mention of innocence a couple of lines later makes me think again of childhood, though it’s a brutal idea of innocence: “Sometimes by innocence I think I’ve meant / the innocence of carnivores, raised in the wild, for whom the killing / is sportless, clean, unmetaphysical.” The figure of the hunt—men hunting animals, animals hunting one another—as representing erotic pursuit is constant in Phillips’s work, part of an image repertoire that he inherits from the Petrarchan tradition and revivifies. Is this then a poem about the relationship between eros and innocence? Between the kind of eros Phillips’s poems are often drawn to—reckless, restless—and a more settled life this poet has also held up as an ideal? We can barely ask the questions before the poem snatches them away: “then I’m not sure.” But morality, the question of morality, is raised again in the next lines, with that mention of steeples, arbiters of convention, which chimes with “innocence,” and with the earlier mention of hell, a promise of punishment, a keeping of accounts. But the poem’s interest is not in steeples, but steeplebush; in the natural phenomenon, which has an existence independent of the interpretive frame of human meaning.
An argument is being made here, I think, about innocence and its loss, and then that argument—the validity of its terms—is being called into question. But I’m loath to try to coerce the poem any further into discursive argument, since so much of the energy of these lines seems invested in hovering at the edge of discursiveness, precisely in the way of apophatic discourse: “it’s the past, and it isn’t,” “maybe, and maybe not,” “I think I’ve meant . . . then I’m not so sure.” Besides, poetic argument isn’t restricted to the sentence; it happens more powerfully at the level of form. Phillips has always written sonnets, but the form has taken on a primary importance in several recent books, and not just the form but an interrogation of the form, an attempt to make it more flexible, to see how far it can be stretched before it loses that coherence and rhetorical pressure that make it a useful tool. Simply in the way Phillips experiments with the sonnet form, one finds an allegory of restlessness and fidelity, of transgression and discipline. “Neon” just overshoots fourteen lines, but it’s faithful to the rhetorical model of the Petrarchan sonnet, the turn precisely placed in the extra line between the octave and sestet. Where before the concrete situation was occluded, every assertion undone, the connective tissue between sentences never quite explicit, the sestet launches us into a brutally clear scene:
Comes a day when
the god, what at least you’ve called a god, takes you not from behind,
the usual, but pins you instead, his ass on your chest, his cock in your
face, his mouth twisting open, saying Lick my balls, and because you
want to live, in spite of everything, you do what he says, heaven and
earth, some rain, a few stars appearing, harder, the way he tells you to,
then not so hard, a tenderness like no tenderness you’ve ever shown.
Even here, though, equivocation is everywhere. A sexual partner is compared to a god, as happens elsewhere in Phillips’s poems, where men are often seen as embodiments of divine, impersonal forces: beauty, or desire, or judgment. How often in epic and myth—Phillips is a classicist, too—a stranger reveals himself a god; from this, the laws of hospitality, of indiscriminate welcome. (For another essay: cruising, promiscuity more generally, as a radical discipline of hospitality.) “The god, what at least you’ve called a god,” the poet says, addressing himself with an equivocation that comes both in the stutter—“what at least you’ve called”—and just as powerfully in the demotion from definite to indefinite article: not the god; a god. This makes me think, despite the phrase “the usual,” that this may be a transient sexual partner, one in a series, I’m not sure. What’s more important is the issue of what transpires between these men, which raises questions of agency and coercion and consent. What does the speaker mean when he says, “because you / want to live”? What is the valence of “live”? To survive? Are we witness to an act of violence, which anyone who cruises courts, the risk is part of the undertaking? Or does “live” here mean to live freely or fully, to live open to experience, to live, maybe, free of the shackles conventional morality would have us wear? What if we can’t be sure? “There’s a kind of sex that is less about power,” Phillips writes in an essay, “than about the unpredictability—and the flexibility—with which that power gets divided between and among the parties involved.” Power here seems to be all in the hands of the god, but then again, he too seems caught by something, maybe he’s not quite free—isn’t there something slavish in how his mouth twists open, and isn’t there something passive, actually, in his role? Isn’t it the speaker who acts, isn’t it the speaker who has the power to give pleasure? Isn’t it hard to tell? It’s a single sentence, the sestet, and at first the syntax seems uncharacteristically forthright: “Comes a day when . . . takes you not from behind but pins you . . . and because you want to live . . . you do what he says.” But then things fall apart, syntax breaks down, the poem lays claim to the cosmos—heaven and earth—the poet’s attention shifts, in a way not unlike what happened in “Storm,” to the world around him: rain, stars. We are outside then, maybe we’ve been cruising after all. “Harder,” the man says, though what act this is attached to isn’t really clear anymore. “Lick my balls?” Maybe. Or maybe some other act is involved now, maybe the roles have shifted; agency is confused, I think; who’s fucking whom isn’t clear. It’s part of the rhetoric of mysticism, to arrive at a collapse of subject and object. There’s a standard image repertoire for achieving this: a reflecting mirror, say, or a receptacle suddenly indistinguishable from what it receives. “Our longing / now to fill a space, and now—getting filled—to be the space / itself,” Phillips writes in “Topaz.” It’s a sentence that could have been written, almost, by Meister Eckhart, and it’s as shocking as finding the sacred heart in a man’s anus: it’s a queering of apophasis, the mystic’s divine union figured as gay male sexual versatility. What it leads to in “Neon,” this suggestion that sex might bring us to a place where easy roles, easy understandings of agency or will or subjecthood, easy divisions between one person and another, between the human and the divine, have all dissolved—what it leads to is something the narrator calls “tenderness.” It’s a surprise, that word, after what we’ve just witnessed, and of course the poet has to trouble it: it’s unrecognizable, “a tenderness like no tenderness,” a tenderness the poet has just discovered he can show. How have we arrived here? Reading this poem, I feel what I feel when I look at Keith Haring’s masterpiece: I feel the inadequacy of all my moral categories; I feel again that art is our best instrument for navigating the abyss of human feeling.
“I think we ruin or we save ourselves,” the poem declares in its extra line, the hinge between the octave and the sestet. So which have we just seen? The ruin of the boy of the first line, of his innocence? Or the salvation of the man the poet now is? Or isn’t the point that the terms are inadequate, that ruin has become salvation and salvation, ruin? Ruin is a term Phillips often uses in poems about sex and its consequences. “Now speak / of ruin—that appetite for it, by which the one / who loves knows / most immediately his beloved,” he writes in “Directions from Here.” It’s a fascinating word, “immediately,” and a fascinating question, how ruin can give us access not just to knowledge, but to knowledge without intervening medium—a knowledge, I take it, that collapses the distance between subject and object, between the lover and the beloved. Again we are in the realm of mystical discourse: this is something close to what Ibn ‘Arabi figures as “polishing the mirror,” the removal of flaw that allows the soul perfectly to reflect God—perfectly, that is, to contain and be contained by God, to contain and be contained by the beloved. Versatility. Ruin is associated from the start of Phillips’s career with beauty—“the loveliest things are always / also the most ruined,” he writes in “Glads,” from Cortège—and this insight is one he holds to with admirable, with I think brave, consistency. “Show me a longing that’s got no history to it,” Phillips challenges us in “Glory On,” and in the particular historical moment in which Carl Phillips came of age as a poet—the historical moment, too, of Keith Haring’s mural (Haring was born in 1958, Phillips one year later)—sex between men, especially sexual practices of the kind Phillips and Haring explore in their art, courted a very particular kind of ruin. It’s importantly if not exclusively the specter of AIDS that I think Phillips has in mind when he speaks of a link between promiscuity and an urge we might deem suicidal. And yet even here—especially here—there is something he insists is sacred. “I don’t know why the body—penetrating, penetrated—can seem luminous, a kind of sacrament, why a group of men having sex beneath a dock on a summer night crammed with stars becomes its own communion,” he writes in The Art of Daring. And in this fraught, dangerous, potentially suicidal communion, there is, he insists, a difficult, maybe a heroic beauty. I think this is part of what is meant in these lines from a fascinating poem called “At Bay,” from Reconnaissance:
versus those who attempted death, versus those who effectively
fashioned out of such attempts a style akin to electric guitar
shimmer swelling and unswelling like starlings when they first
Phillips’s poems have never shied away from the difficult subjects of queer shame and self-loathing, or of how sexual communities like those I’ve described might be at once evidence of such shame and a defiant rejection of it. Not just defiant; also beautiful, glamorous, like “electric guitar / shimmer.” It is an achievement of these poems to hold glamor and shame in a single hand. “The shame of it all, the promiscuity,” Phillips can write in one book, and, in the next, describe “the grace that, over time, / promiscuity can seem to bring with it.” But ruin also signifies a different kind of loss that sexual hunger can lead to, the loss of a settled life, a life longed for and achieved with great effort and then, as if willfully, destroyed: “the by-now-nearly-ritualized / mistake of falling self-destructively / and in relatively slow motion into then / out of love,” as he puts it in “In Which to Wonder Flew a Kind of Reckoning,” from Reconnaissance. The crux of Phillips’s poems is this: A life of pure abandon, a life of pure restraint; they are irreconcilable, and neither is bearable in itself. It’s to attempt to think through or around or past this irresolvable conundrum that Phillips mobilizes the rhetorical strategies of the via negativa, making what could be sterile impasse, the barren end of thought, instead into something productive of new revelation.
I want to end by looking at a very short poem from Phillips’s most recent collection, Wild Is the Wind. It’s one of his most beautiful poems; it’s one of the most beautiful poems I know. It’s called “Gold Leaf”:
To lift, without ever asking what animal exactly it once belonged to,
the socketed helmet that what’s left of the skull equals
up to your face, to hold it there, mask-like, to look through it until
looking through means looking back, back through the skull,
into the self that is partly the animal you’ve always wanted to be,
that—depending—fear has prevented or rescued you from becoming,
to know utterly what you’ll never be, to understand in doing so
what you are, and say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.
Eight lines, a single sentence. Except not a sentence, a fragment: a sequence of infinitive phrases and dependent clauses. I often think of Phillips’s syntax as standing in a relation to functional syntax similar to that of Debussy’s harmonies to functional harmony: the usual relations are never entirely lost from sight, but neither are they allowed their usual authority to constrain. The first three lines of the poem establish the scene: a man is walking in the woods, perhaps in autumn (that’s one reading of the title, at least); he sees a broken animal skull on the ground; he lifts it to his face like a mask. This is the kind of scene work a novelist might envy, at once clear and economical: with a few bold brushstrokes, we’re given a gesture of overwhelmingly mysterious resonance. That resonance is heightened by the stillness of the poem. I don’t just mean the stillness of the man himself, though it’s true he has stopped walking, that now he stands without moving. I also mean the peculiar stillness of Phillips’s line breaks. Of these eight lines, five end with punctuation, a visual sign of a completed unit of syntax; only three are enjambed. Phillips is often drawn to the burst of energy released when a sentence whips across a line; think of the line breaks in “Neon”: “his cock in your / face”; “and because you / want to live”; “heaven and / earth.” Much of the urgency of that poem comes from the fact that its lines give us nowhere to rest. How different the prosody of “Gold Leaf” is; how weirdly calm. Even the enjambment of the second line is really functioning as punctuation, articulating the slightly tricky syntax there, the relative clause modifying “helmet,” its verb awkwardly, compellingly, dangling at the end. The third line is the first that actually feels enjambed, the adverb pushing us across the line break, eager for its clause. It’s a raising of the stakes, and indeed, the whole poem depends upon the move it makes here—which is, as it turns out, an apophatic move, the sudden paradoxical shift of direction that is one of the characteristics of mystical rhetoric. “Love took her and annihilated her,” Marguerite Porete writes in The Mirror of Simple Souls, “and thus love works in her through her without her.” Here’s Phillips: “To look through it until / looking through means looking back, back through the skull, / into the self.” The prepositions are dizzying: through, through, back, back, through, into. Looking at the world through the mask of an animal, the poet has a vision of the animal he is. Well, that he “partly” is. Phillips is fascinated by the hybrid, by minotaurs and antlered gods, by the shamanic figure the poet becomes in this poem; and also by men who are bridled like horses, men who are leashed like dogs. These are all figures that make evident what seems to him a hybridity fundamental to the human, torn as we are between animal hunger and reason that would discipline hunger. This is a fault line in us Phillips has obsessively worried, and one expressed most compellingly for him in sex. “The self that is partly the animal you’ve always wanted to be”—that suicidal self, I think this means, the self abandoned to impulse, that longs to be given over to “a hunger to be undone by,” as Phillips writes elsewhere. What has held him back from that undoing is fear, a fear framed by equivocation: it has “prevented” or it has “rescued.” I think of “Neon” again, of its plangent assertion, “I think we ruin or we save ourselves,” and of how difficult the difference was to tell. I think of the strange, indeterminate valence I sensed in the word “live” in that poem: “because you / want to live.” Has fear kept us from living fully, living freely? Or has fear been what has allowed us to keep living at all? How can we decide? We’re on the via negativa again: what the poet knows, what he knows “utterly,” is what he’ll never be, and only in knowing that can he understand what he is. And then there is the moment that undoes me, the miraculous moment in which the promise of apophasis is fulfilled, when the poem conjures from negative syntax a profound affirmation: “to know utterly what you’ll never be, to understand in doing so / what you are, and say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.” As in “Hymn,” there is a grace affirmed here in the recuperation of the human, the shift from “what you are,” to “who you are,” an assertion of personhood. But how have we arrived at that word despair? Where has it come from? It changes everything, it forces us back to the beginning, to read the poem anew in light of its extremity, realizing that what the poet is looking for is a way not to despair. It is among the most moving things I know in poetry, that at the end of this perfect poem he has found it, a way not to despair, that in uttering the word he has dismissed it. I think this is possible because Phillips has refused conundrum the status of impasse, and he has done this by harnessing the restlessness of the via negativa, by using all his art to make new tools for thinking. We cannot live as we would like to live, because we are irreconcilable with ourselves. We want to be clean; we want to bathe in filth; we mistake where cleanness lies; grace springs us from behind. He taketh my hand in his.