Wild Is the Wind by Carl Phillips
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. 50 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
Wild Is the Wind begins in the middle of a conversation or a meditation that we are invited to eavesdrop on, though as with all overheard speech, we may feel that we’re missing a crucial reference. The first poem, three lines in its entirety, starts with an em-dash:
“—Both things, I think.” Phillips insists again and again that meaning is at least double: “I’m beginning to think I may never/not be undecided….” Even the syntax hesitates between multiple formulations, all equally valid:
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related.
Everything is related. The metaphors return in multiple poems that echo each other across the collection. The speaker moves between the sea and the forest or combines both in a dreamscape where he can row across the woods without clarifying whether we’re crossing through water or trees or perhaps a field. There are guide stars, but we may not be able to follow them:
Invisible leaves toss like water;
the eyes shut, or they turn away, as from the four
bright points of a constellation missed earlier,
and just now seen clearly . . .
(“The Distance and the Spoils”)
Nor is the ambiguity resolved as the collection reaches its inconclusive conclusion. The title of the last poem, “The Sea, The Forest,” once again offers both possibilities. It ends as firmly in the middle as the opening poem began there, with the speaker responding What when his partner asks Did you hear that, where “that” could be wind in leaves, or waves, or mistakes crashing “wave-like against the shore of everything that a life has stood for.”
That is what the poems reach for, a truth about the speaker’s experience, his mortality and his relationships with others, but while refusing any explanation that would settle on only one way to understand the truth. Another recurring image is of bees that move like a scab among windfalls, or stir among dogwood blossoms, or ferry water up from the birdbath, gathering what is needed but not moving in any straight line. In “Stray,” the image of the bees comes after allusions to a conflicted relationship witnessed by apartments across the street that used to be a boys’ grammar school, and even earlier a convent that left behind only a marble pedestal inscribed with “Heart of Jesus, have mercy,’ as if that much, at least/still remained relevant, or should.” If he is a mystery to himself, the speaker is becoming more able to understand others, which can
seem as good a road as any
maybe toward compassion, even if half
washed away—the road, I mean; not compassion.
(“The Dark No Softer Than It Was Before”)
Despite everything that is painful, even if it isn’t actually pain; despite all the loss, this poet isn’t “done with us yet,” as he tells us in the title poem. That tentative commitment offers enough hope to keep us all moving down his road.
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.