The History of the Personal and The Personal in History: The Poetry of Patrick Phillips

by Billy Reynolds

He stood between me and that pain
     —Patrick Phillips, “My Lovely Assistant” (2003)

The poet Patrick Phillips was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970. He was raised in Cumming, Georgia. He graduated with a B.A. from Tufts University in 1992, received his M.F.A. from the University of Maryland in 1995, and his Ph.D. from NYU in 2006. His first book, Chattahoochee, was recently selected by Robert Pinsky, Alice Quinn, and Robert Wrigley for the 2005 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poems have appeared in many magazines, including Poetry, DoubleTake, and Ploughshares. Among his honors are a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, the Sjoberg Translation Prize and a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Copenhagen.

BR: There’s a quality to your work that reminds me of Milosz’s assertion that a secret of poetry is the distance between what you know and what you reveal. To my mind, a lot of your poems operate this way. This tension obviously is a reason why your poems immediately get to the emotional center, but it also creates mystery. Is this a conscious decision on your part to withhold some of the “facts” behind the family story being told in Chattahoochee?

PP: I agree with Milosz that a secret of poetry is the distance between what is known and what is revealed—but I think the mysteries in Chattahoochee arise less from a conscious decision to withhold “the facts,” and more from my uncertainty: my sense that there is no unalloyed truth about my childhood, or any childhood, and about the family conflict at the heart of the book. I am always wary of deciding for the reader, or for myself, what those memories mean and what they are about. Instead I wanted to return to memories that I didn’t understand, but at the same time could not seem to escape. The common thread of the stories told in the book—a boy accidentally shooting a pregnant deer, a brother setting his face on fire, a drunken baptism at a poker game—is that I don’t know what any of them mean, but I’ve always known they were important. Such memories feel like oracles in the epics, in that the hero knows they mean something, but he always gets it wrong. I guess I still find the world bewildering, and what interests me about childhood is that at that point we have not yet learned to pretend it all makes sense. Children watch and witness. I guess I’m saying that if one secret of poetry is knowing more than you reveal, another is revealing how little you know.

BR: In Chattahoochee the speaker time and again is bewildered by male violence, especially the ways it sweeps across generations of families. This is especially true of “A Valediction,” where the speaker remembers witnessing his brother kill several animals, including a family dog the speaker sees him take up in the hills and shoot. The speaker doesn’t name the person he is addressing. This gesture is tactful, but it also turns the addressee into a haunting presence. Technique for you is the engine of discover.

PP: It’s interesting that you read “A Valediction” as an address to the brother, and understandable, since he is the real protagonist of the book. But I’ve talked with people who understood the “you” differently. The question is related to your point about the distance between what is known and what is revealed in poetry. I hope it doesn’t seem coy that I leave the referent of the pronoun a bit unclear. Or rather, indeterminate. I know who I was addressing of course, but I would hate to give up any of the other ways of reading it, especially if they seem powerful or moving to someone else. After all, who am I to say? I’m just the poet.

The phrase “technique is indeed the engine of discovery” reminds me of hitting a golf ball. If you stare at the green from 210 yards and think about how hard you have to hit a three iron to get there, the ball usually dribbles a few pathetic feet. But if you keep your eyes on the ball and think about one thing (“head down”) a wonderful thing happens: instinct takes over, and the ball seems to go, miraculously, where only the unthinking body could send it. So for me focusing on technical parts of the poem is above all a way to get my treacherous mind out of the way so that other part of me—the instinctive, imaginative, reactive, three-iron hitting part—can do its thing.

BR: You seem to me a poet obsessed with form. To my mind, these forms establish a certain a decorum—or restraint, if you will—that you quite often violate with astonishing syntactical violence, such as in “Elegy Ending in a Dream” and “A Valediction.” Is it fair to suggest this tension between restraint and rupture is a pattern you explored in your first book?

PP: I am very interested in forms. There are a few sonnets in the book, a few ghazals, and then a great many nonce forms, where I simply let the first few lines establish a pattern, and then held myself to it. I love working in such forms because they are generative. I have always found writing difficult, and left to my own devices I would probably write two-line poems all day. But this is a good way to lose a tennis match (sorry for all the sports metaphors): to focus on making no mistakes. Instead, you have to make something happen... take some risks, and resist the temptation to quit on a poem before anything has been discovered. I love formal schemes because they force me to keep going. If I write ten lines I inevitably see the faint silhouette of a sonnet in the distance, and then I have no choice but to write another quatrain, even if I later decide it’s not going to be a sonnet after all. If it’s a ghazal each couplet has to arrive at the two syllable refrain. And so the forms, by providing a destination, make it more likely that I, coward that I am, will step into the void, and dwell in the terrifying blankness of the page. Occasionally I’m in a groove and the poem comes easily, but I spend much of my time at the desk saying: four more lines, three more beats, two more syllables. We tend to think of forms in terms of the finished poem, but I also love them for purely pragmatic reasons: formal constraints cut the silence down to size.

I hope the forms in Chattahoochee do indeed set up that tension between decorum and the breaking of decorum, as you put it. There is nothing that gives me more delight in poetry than surprise. I think of Rilke’s “you must change your life.” Of Bishop: “And I let it go.” Of Herbert: “Me thought I heard one calling, Child / and I replied, My Lord.” And if surprise is one of my great pleasures in poetry, it requires first an expectation, and the suspense of waiting for it to be fulfilled. I love the narrative movement of sonata form, when a symphony establishes a phrase, elaborates it almost beyond recognition, and then finally returns to the tonic key that we had almost, but not quite, forgotten. It is journey that ends in a homecoming. And that is, I think, the ideal relationship between decorum and surprise: a poem that is both surprising and inevitable in its closing lines, as the formal contract with the reader is upheld, but not in the way that we expected.

BR: Stanley Plumly argues that the narrative poet needs to balance lyric necessity and narrative concern. In other words, the fire behind the poems is song; it informs and shapes the story. You also share with him a desire to write poems that are textured and nuanced, no?

PP: Yes, I long to write poems that sing, and I admire both Plumly’s formulation of the problem, and especially the solutions he finds in his own delicate, astonishing poems. Again, I come back to pragmatic necessity: I tried to make the stories in Chattahoochee sing because I am easily bored by narrative poems, and read so many that are of no import to anyone but the poet. My recycle bin is full of these. I think the struggle to shape a story into song and the struggle to “make sense” of it are one and the same. Many of the poems that I like began in very different, much longer versions, and in the process of revision I chiseled them down until I got to something lyric in the narrative raw material. Something that I could sense was there, and that made me unable to leave the story alone. I think of Elmore Leonard’s wonderful advice: skip the boring parts. It’s a win-win situation, in that skipping the boring parts makes for a better story, and also helps erase that line between story and song.

BR: The speaker in many of these poems is both an onlooker at a bewildering world and a receptacle of story. Yet far from writing poetry of victim-hood, there is a certain grace you seek and that is one of the book’s obsessions. Is this an accurate observation?

PP: The position of the narrator in Chattahoochee is probably the most autobiographical part of the book, since that was my actual position during the emotional war between my father and my brother. As the youngest of three children, and six years younger than my brother, I was always the one watching. Too small to be a player in the drama, too big not to see it all and remember. I have a sister who hardly appears in the book, and I finally realized that this has to do with perspective: we were raised almost like twins, and so in the terms of perspective drawing, you can’t see my sister in the book because she is standing exactly where I stand. We were always huddled on the fourth stair down, watching through the rails of the banister as my father and my brother went at each other. I think that has shaped my view of the world, and probably helped make me a writer: someone on the margins, someone who watches and bears witness.

BR: In a new poem, “The History of Twilight,” the speaker is reading his sons a bedtime story. The speaker realizes he’s now become his father—certainly a heady experience—and yet there’s a kind of self-directed humor in the poem. The speaker lies back on a Stars Wars pillow aware that he’s “giving the performance of his life: playing the role of my father.” There’s a kind of serious play involved here that I see in a lot of your poems.

PP: I certainly hope there is serious play in the poems, and I think that I’m moving more and more in that direction. One of the most important books on my shelf in the past few years has been Alan Shapiro’s Song & Dance, a collection about his brother’s death from a brain tumor. It sounds like a horribly depressing read with such a description, and yet the book has many, many laugh-out-loud moments. The brother elegized in the book was a Broadway actor and a comic, and to have left out the laughs, the mockery, and the scathingly funny way in which he faced his own sickness and death, would have been false. So I’m trying to learn from that book, and to embrace an even wider range of voices... or rather, to allow into the poems more of the voices with which I meet the world: at times serious and sincere, of course, but also funny, irreverent, bawdy, rebellious, and cantankerous. Shapiro’s poems show that it is possible to wear both masks of drama.

BR: Maybe an obvious question is where to now? You’ve just successfully defended your dissertation at NYU. Are you at work on a second book, and if so do you find yourself reexamining some of the issues you explored Chattahoochee?

PP: I have just finished my doctorate, and narrowly won a race: to get out of school before my oldest son got in. I am about three-quarters of the way finished with a second book. Or at least I think so this week! Compared to Chattahoochee many of the new poems step through the looking glass of childhood. I am the father in the story now, and the faces staring up at the Christmas tree aren’t my brother, my sister, and me, but my sons. At moments something will happen, and when I look at the boys I realize that I’ve just seen one of those indelible, ineffable memories come into being. They’re little recording devices, like the black box on a plane: it’s all in there, waiting to be analyzed someday. Raising them has been a joyful, strange, and often terrifying experience, and it has made me feel very tender towards myself as a child, and towards my parents. I used to love Larkin’s line “They Fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,” from “This Be The Verse.” But now I pay a lot more attention to what follows: “They don’t mean to, but they do.” So that’s where I’m at: writing poems, making endless peanut butter sandwiches, and trying to safely land the plane.