In observance of National Poetry Month, this week’s New Title Tuesday recommendation is Wild Is the Wind by PEN Center Literary Award winner and author of 14 books of poetry Carl Phillips. A Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, Phillips also teaches creative writing there and as served as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets since 2011.
“What has restlessness been for?”
In Wild Is the Wind, Carl Phillips reflects on love as depicted in the jazz standard for which the book is named—love at once restless, reckless, and yet desired for its potential to bring stability. In the process, he pitches estrangement against communion, examines the past as history versus the past as memory, and reflects on the past’s capacity both to teach and to mislead us—also to make us hesitate in the face of love, given the loss and damage that are, often enough, love’s fallout. How “to say no to despair”? How to take perhaps that greatest risk, the risk of believing in what offers no guarantee? These poems that, in their wedding of the philosophical, meditative, and lyric modes, mark a new stage in Phillips’s remarkable work, stand as further proof that “if Carl Phillips had not come onto the scene, we would have needed to invent him. His idiosyncratic style, his innovative method, and his unique voice are essential steps in the evolution of the craft” (Judith Kitchen, The Georgia Review).
As a reading and writing teacher, I told my students that some poems could be understood differently over time and after multiple readings. The symbolism and references take on new meanings as one grows and has new experiences. I told them to consider lyrics of songs they may have heard as a child and how loving, losing, and life brought new and different meanings to the lines and references. The poems in Wild Is the Wind provide that sort of opportunity.
One reading isn’t enough to thoroughly absorb such complex and entangled lines. These beg to be read and re-read and provide a lovely pay-off each time. Phillips’s verse can be dissected and enjoyed or read as a sweeping whole. As with many poems or lyrics, there can be more than one accurate interpretation.
Elizabeth Lund said it beautifully in her Washington Post review: These 35 poems “counterbalance love and fear, memory and the mirage of history, despair and the willingness to hope for ideals — loyalty, wholeness, honesty. The writing dazzles with transcendent metaphors, complex connections and linguistic flourishes. It also draws on some familiar Phillips motifs — navigation and the sea, the sky and land — to explore the possibility that love can bring both stability and freedom…. Other emotions and factors shape this rich panoply, which consistently challenges readers without providing easy resolution.”
In the spirit of National Poetry Month and with a loyalty to an almost-local artist, check out and spend time with Wild Is the Wind. While you’re at it, set the scene by listening to to a vocal recording of the jazz song”Wild is the Wind” by Johnnie Mathis or Nina Simone.
Happy Reading! Susan C.
Also by Phillips:
In Silverchest, his twelfth book, Carl Phillips considers how our fears and excesses, the damage we cause both to others and to ourselves, intentional and not, can lead not only to a kind of wisdom but also to renewal, maybe even joy, if we’re willing to commit fully to a life in which “I love you / means what, exactly?” In poems shot through with his signature mix of eros, restless energy, and moral scrutiny, Phillips argues for the particular courage it takes to look at the self squarely–not with judgment but with understanding–and extend that self more honestly toward others. It’s a risk, there’s a lot to lose, but if it’s true that ‘we’ll drown anyway–why not / in color.
Double Shadow – Comparing any human life to a “restless choir” of impulses, variously in conflict and at peace with one another, Carl Phillips, in his eleventh collection of poems, examines the double shadow that a life casts forth: “now risk, and now / faintheartedness.” In poems that both embody and inhabit this double shadow, risk and faintheartedness prove to have the power equally to rescue us from ourselves and to destroy us. Spare, haunted, and haunting, yet not without hope, Double shadow argues for life as a wilderness through which there’s only the questing forward–with no regrets and no looking back.
Speak Low is the tenth book from one of America’s most distinctive—and one of poetry’s most essential—contemporary voices. Phillips has long been hailed for work provocative in its candor, uncompromising in its inquiry, and at once rigorous and innovative in its attention to craft. Over the course of nine critically acclaimed collections, he has generated a sustained meditation on the restless and ever-shifting myth of human identity. Desire and loss, mastery and subjugation, belief and doubt, sex, animal instinct, human reason: these are among the lenses through which Phillips examines what it means to be that most bewildering, irresolvable conundrum, a human being in the world.
These new poems are of a piece with Phillips’s previous work in their characteristic clarity and originality of thought, in their unsparing approach to morality and psychology, and in both the strength and startling flexibility of their line. Speak Low is the record of a powerful vision that, in its illumination of the human condition, has established itself as a necessary step toward our understanding of who we are in the twenty-first century.
Speak Low is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Poetry.
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Black Nature This book is the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets, a genre that until now has not commonly been counted as one in which African American poets have participated. Black poets have a long tradition of incorporating treatments of the natural world into their work, but it is often read as political, historical, or protest poetry, anything but nature poetry. This is particularly true when the definition of what constitutes nature writing is limited to work about the pastoral or the wild. The author has selected 180 poems from 93 poets that provide unique perspectives on American social and literary history to broaden our concept of nature poetry and African American poetics. This collection features major writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Natasha Trethewey, and Melvin B. Tolson as well as newer talents such as Douglas Kearney, Major Jackson, and Janice Harrington. Included are poets writing out of slavery, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century African American poetic movements. It also brings to the fore a neglected and vital means of considering poetry by African Americans and nature-related poetry as a whole.