By Ed Meek
Rowan Ricardo Phillips attempts to combine a woke perspective with his vast knowledge of poetry from the past.
Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pages, $24.
I had NPR on in the fall and I heard a poem called “Violins” read by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. I loved the sound of it. Words are repeated and then rhymed and off-rhymed: the verse links sounds and concepts, combines 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’s new collection, Living Weapon. 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 surprising but apt comment on our current era’s juxtaposition of white 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 …
The final phrase is cool, a comparison of the explosive effect of crack with the more sustained high of cocaine. Perhaps the poem is arguing that, even if you are an African American who inhabits the world of Harvard and Brown, there will be violence. “why god oh why,” Phillips writes. He moves from there into making a meta-comment about poetry, a strategy he uses 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” of the title, a writer 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, life in America is really beginning to feel like house arrest.) Throughout the volume, Phillips comments on poetry, on what it is and what its role is. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about the fictional dream. He warns that, if the author steps out of the story to talk about the story (as a lot of meta-fiction does), he or she risks losing the reader. This self-conscious exit from the imaginary happens too often in Living Weapon. All the poems comment on poetry, though not always explicitly. Whenever Phillips explicitly makes a point about the purpose of verse, I want him to just get back to the poem.
In Living Weapon Phillips offers running commentary on history, myth, and poetry, and how they bear on the present. He is an erudite poet and he likes to make reference to earlier versifiers — including Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, all the way back to Homer. It will not come as a big surprise to find out that he has a PhD in English Literature from Brown University. This is his third book of poems. Philips has also written essays and translations and has won many awards, including the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Prize for Poetry, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. He’s been a Guggenheim Fellow and he has taught at Harvard, Columbia, and 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 Stevens that begins with the line: “Far in the woods they sang their unreal songs, / Secure.” Phillips sees himself in the tradition of the poet as singer, and Orpheus fits into that notion. His poem is, you may have noticed, a sonnet. Philips is comfortable using traditional forms. And, at times, he can be eloquent: “labyrinth laired with trillium” and “morning’s lingering lamplights” and “Mulling lullabies.” And he’s not afraid to make a strong statement about love; our minds may be useless these days, but love remains powerful.
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 quotation follows the poem by Stevens (one of the most cerebral of our poets) at the beginning of the book. He attempts to combine a woke perspective with his vast knowledge of poetry from the past. In the final poem, “Dark Matter,” Phillips projects 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 believed, an “instrument,” a weapon that can “batter” the soul. Can poetry play that blunt a role in the external world? Is Rowan Ricardo Phillips a kind of warrior, his verse a living weapon? He certainly has a few arrows in his quiver.
Have contemporary American poets been living weapons? Lawrence Joseph maybe. Robert Bly back in the day. Allen Ginsberg in Howl. Today, writers of nonfiction seem to fit the bill: Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Ta Nehisi Coates. Or rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Eminem (and many others). Activists like Greta Thunberg. Because of the overarching artificiality of our age, the simulacrum we inhabit, we search for authenticity in our artists. The creators and thinkers listed above seem to be genuine as they take on the status quo. This sort of rebellion is highly valued by some 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-Stuy. Rowan Ricardo Phillips claims to have it, but he ends up stepping into Kanye West territory. I’m not a fan.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during National Poetry Month in 2019.