And Then We Laughed: Poems by Louis Phillips.
Prologue Press 2017
It is not every season that brings to us, folks at Offcourse, a work of such poetic scope to be reviewed. Emotional scope above all, but also thematic and tonal. Humor and personal loss alternate in these forty pages (there are no page numbers; I had to count them), reminding one of some Renaissance images of Democritus, 'the laughing philosopher,' walking down the road from Athens in disputation with Heraclitus, 'the weeping sage,' as they were often called in ancient times.
Here's the comical "Stand In," under the epigraph by pop singer Sting, "I like the theater of sex":
Forgive me, my darling,
For flubbing lines,
Making late entrances,
Upstaging most of the cast.
I no longer expect
A standing ovation,
But are those reasons enough
To replace me?
From which, to the mysterious "For My Lost Son," whose concluding stanza begins:
I touch the wind & its web
& they touch back. What I might not do
Is to walk away singing.
The poet—that is his job after all—sings, but doesn't walk away. He sings, therefore, in the midst of grief, and perhaps it is grief that fuels his song. And it's not only song, but laughter. Remember that Phillips's title is, And Then We Laughed. Are we to understand that when all is said and done, Democritus wins over Heraclitus, persuading him that laughter befits a poet, or even, god forbid, a philosopher? Perhaps. When we read poems for the first time, just as when we listen to a new piece of music, often we try to orient ourselves by comparing the new to the many poems, texts, or pieces of music in our memory, or to their traces, and trying them for fit. When I read And Then We Laughed, and think of the title, I can't avoid contrasting it to Baudelaire, for whom Le Sage ne rit qu'en tremblant (Whenever the Sage laughs, he shudders), and who, with characteristic arrogance, assures us that "in pure poetry, deep and transparent like nature, laughter will be absent, as in the soul of the Sage." (Baudelaire, De l'essence du rire.) But then, it would be hard to think of two poets more different in spirit than Baudelaire and Phillips.
I think it was Robert Frost who wrote, in a letter, that style, especially in a poet, is the transparency of what he takes himself to be: Stevenson took himself in stride; Swinburne, as Apollo's gift to the world. Phillips's style can be intensely, yet simply, classically delightful, as you can see in this jewel whose title is its first line:
Morning no longer surprises me.
If I'm there, she'll be there,
Her rosy fingers
Tapping me upon the shoulders.
Her eyes slightly puffy,
Her red lips pouty. Not now,
I tell her. Not now.
I wonder if the fact that my sex drive as well as my energy to get up from bed and face a new day are not what they used to be, is behind my partiality to this poem. So I read it again. No: it's perfect; I approve, and have nothing to add, nothing to say. With another poem in this collection, much as I admire it, I get into a sort of internal dialogue, as if Democritus and Heraclitus, having colonized my mind, take up there, again, their walk down the road from Athens. The poem's title is, "The Map of Human Reason," and here's its first stanza:
The map to the Isle of Reason
Has been redrawn many times.
How is it possible to tell
Valleys from the mountains?
—Yes, says my Democritus, redrawn so many times it is ridiculous: many of my acquaintances used to believe there is no void; then came Torricelli and Pascal and von Guericke and showed there is a void, and most of the universe is void; then come Einstein & co and show there is really no void, that all space is filled with vector and tensor fields—don't ask me what those mean. But Heraclitus: —No, no! That, my friend, has nothing to do with Reason. What you call Reason is my Logos; my Logos is eternal, and there isn't, nor can there be, any map to it.
The dispute goes on and on, and becomes rather acerbic at the final two stanzas:
The strangest gods,
Ones with heads
Of crocodiles & hearts of stone
So many of us hug
The rugged coastline,
& never go ashore.
—Yes, says Democritus, Reason has no heart; how can you expect atoms to have a heart, or care about your timorous one? Stay on your boat then. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. —As if anyone could hide from the Logos, sighs Heraclitus, or stay away from it! As for the kitchen, it is full of gods. There's no coastline to hug, and you have only one choice: Robinson Crusoe's ship suffered wreck; stout Cortés scuttled his ships.
But on one thing my two philosophers agree: this is a marvelous book.