Poetry books often come under titles like Poems, or New Poems, or Late Poems, by Jack-so-and-so, which tell us no more than where to place them on our bookshelves, but when we get a book such as the present one by Louis Phillips, with a manifestly enigmatic title, the reviewer must try to unveil the intention behind it, because that will probably enhance the spiritual flavor of the reading.
To begin with, regret. To regret is to lament the past or the passing: the past of human action that has brought all of us living on this earth to where, unhappily, we’re now, and the more private lament for the passing of loved ones. The oldest meaning of the root gret is to wail. Then, what might be this light regret? Does it mean just a little regret but not much? Just a bit more than Édith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”? No, a hint to what Phillips may mean by it is found on page 11:
“Lao Tzu speaks to us:
Gravity is the root of grace.”
This is from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 26, and a more complete translation might go something like: “The heavy is the root of the light and graceful; the still is the master of motion.” So, there we are: the regret here is light, but its root is grave and grievous. In other words, Phillips’s poems are not hymns, requiems, or elegies, his style is light and graceful – anyone who has read his work or visited his blogs knows how wittily he handles the American idiom and lore of his generation. Yes, his touch is light, but we readers should also proceed with a light and careful touch, because at many unexpected points we will be stung in the heart, for the root is grievous. I will give some examples.
“Some of the World is the World,” a poem divided into sections, starts with Oppenheimer in Los Alamos reciting from the Gita the day of the first nuclear explosion, and continues, in section 1, with the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima. After playing on other themes, section 10 ends with the line, “Little Boy. Little Boy.” The nickname or codename of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, correct. But the repetition bespeaks parental love, and suddenly we remember that in section 8 the death of a son is mentioned: that final line, “Little Boy. Little Boy,” links two griefs, the one within the world of home and family, the other ranging far into the vast outer world, and gives us a glimpse into the title of the poem, “Some of the World is the World.” These words seem to contain an ethical question, or perhaps an ethical imperative.
The private and the public, the inner and the outer, the I versus the vast not-I? These are the last lines of the poem “2 A.M.” (page 31):
Within a Forest of Loss,
It is comforting to know
The Universe & I
Are headed in the same direction.”
The capitalized “Forest of Loss” recalls Dante’s “mi ritrovai in una selva oscura”, just to gauge the immense distance between the medieval world and ours: Dante took a false course which, he feared, would lead to his own eternal damnation, but the Universe was safely under the guidance of the Almighty; now we have no rational basis to reject the conclusion that the Universe – at least the human portion of the Universe – is headed, too, into damnation, and the most natural reaction to this state of affairs, perhaps the only intelligent one, is sarcasm: “It is comforting to know...”
I don’t want to give the impression that most poems in this rich collection hold treasures of grief and hopelessness; there are also unforgettably sensual poems celebrating the body. The female breasts are palpably the part of the human body most celebrated by male poets, and I expect I’ll be dead before I forget the verses by Heinrich Heine to the piano music of Robert Schumann:
„Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt über mich wie Himmelslust“
(When I lay my head on your breast / Something like heaven’s pleasure comes over me)
Now, listen to Phillips’s “What I Miss Most” (page 57):
“At odds with mind’s hunger
Or soul’s rage,
‘One’s body, too, is so lonely.’
I came crying into this world
With its gods
& knew I was overmatched,
But tonight I miss most
Of you own body’s loneliness,
That takes me in at once,
I touch your breasts
Rounder than Giotto’s O’s.”
Tonight I’ll repeat that last line to Isabel while I hold her breasts in my hands.