Carl Phillips writes a poetry of fine distinctions. If he were a painter he would take one color—green, say—and show us all the shades and temperatures it can possibly bear and still be called green, and we would know with our eyes that a tight focus, to a great artist, is hardly that. What such craft allows is a layering of vision. “The dragonfruit / cactuses, ornamenting the yards we walked past, hadn’t / flowered yet, but soon would, the way what isn’t love—at all— / can begin to feel like love.” The precision is supported (in this case) by the long line, a line that seems in praise of taking the words necessary to get it exactly right. And Phillips distinguishes, always, because he is a poet of intense and tender doubt, a poet of chains of clauses, a poet of linguistic age-rings, a poet of resonant images placed side by side, of restless beautiful equivocation, of hard and surprising enjambment, a poet whose art is among the best representations we have of the modern mind in all its wonder and melancholy uncertainty. This is heady stuff but I feel it in my body. A mesmerizing rhythm that keeps me awake like tantra: “Slowly the fog did what fog does …”

Then the War, out this spring, is made of eighty-two pages of new poetry and over a hundred more pages of selected work spanning the last seventeen years, so it’s a cornucopia. Includes a chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures, that will be unfamiliar to many readers. Goes all the way back to Speak Low, a book that began: “The wind stirred—the water beneath it stirred accordingly … / The wind’s pattern was its own, and the water’s also. The / water in that sense was the wind’s reflection.” It’s wind-like, and water-like, in its rustling alliterations and repetitions. Then the War begins with a song that finds its way quickly to a distinction, defining itself as “Not a wreath more a / crown little song worn shyly.” But Then the War includes a song in prose too. A lyric essay (sequence of paragraphs? there are fourteen, as if each paragraph were a line in a sonnet) called “Among the Trees,” which is advertised on the jacket copy as a kind of memoir, and which touches on everything from Tolkien to the queerness of the woods to the irony of being left to hang by his underwear in a fig tree by his Black father. History whispering its sinister and indifferent tones at the edges of every intimacy in Phillips’s poetry. And there again, Phillips is at his best when he drives abstraction into precision by making it speak in finer shades—a style very powerful in its capacity to represent emotional life, which is both intangible and so particular. “I used to speak,” he writes, “in terms of shadowlands, by which I meant, I think, some space where what transpires between two bodies and what gets transacted almost look the same.” “I think” and “as if” are signature Phillips phrases—any assertion is always softened—or refined—into suggestion by this sort of language, any claim sanded down to a possibility. Meditative, hesitant, restless—these are things writers say about Phillips’s much-honored oeuvre.

The poet, who moved around with his air force father and homemaker mom—she was English, and they met when his dad was stationed in London—thought at one point, after teaching high school Latin for a while, that he was going to get a PhD. That didn’t pan out, and neither did his marriage to a woman. His confrontation with his own sexuality emerged right along with his poetry (or at least his life as a published poet) starting with In the Blood, and so Phillips’s questions about fate and forgiveness—a word that recurs in his work, as well as his commentary on what he feels is such a concept’s impossibility, its sheer nonsensicality—ring with the urgency of someone struggling to survive his own desire without dishonoring it by crushing it because it is untamable. That struggle has generated his radiant body of poetry. Body is the right word: Eros says “the body surrenders to risk,” a “moment when an unwillingness to refuse can seem no different from an inability to, though they are not the same—inability, unwillingness.” What is it to want someone? And here again, drawing razor-edged distinctions. In a poem called “Morning in the Bowl of Night” we come to this image of struggle and light:

                                                                  Careful. Look at
the shadows of clouds moving across the ice that still
sheets the pond, how they seem to move, as well, just
beneath the ice, like something trapped there,
private and flourishing.

What is private and flourishing, what is trapped beneath the ice is the illusion of the sky and the things that move across that sky and the promise of that vastness or depth. And we are spellbound. And if that sky and those clouds and that ice are within us, which they are because they are imagined, then this book is both an axe to crack through that frozenness and the ephemeral wonder itself. It seems bottomless.

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JESSE NATHAN: I’ve heard people describe your work as “restless,” and I’m never quite sure what they mean, though I guess I have some idea. I know you’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’m curious, does that word mean anything to you at this point? Do you have any sense of what they might be getting at—and is it anything you’re conscious of? And—this may be related—how do you think about where to break the lines in your poetry?

CARL PHILLIPS: Restless, restlessness… Yes, this has always been an important concept for me, and I’ve written several essays about it. But the short version is that human beings are, in my experience, constantly restless. It’s in our nature to long for things, to be curious about what we don’t have, about lives we don’t live but might possibly live, if only we changed our lives, if only we could… In my own poems, I consider restlessness in the context of eros, but more and more just the restlessness of thought itself, since we’re never thinking one single thought at any given time. There’s a swirl of information in constant play.

And since content informs, or is always dancing with and alongside, form, I think this begins to explain how my sentences work, where a statement is often made, then reconsidered, then revised or maybe dismissed for another approach. Hence the suspended clauses, I suppose, and the way the sentences sort of river their way across the page. But how this connects to enjambment, I’m not sure. For me, enjambment is a way to create momentum down the page; breaking at unexpected places—at places that leave the reader hanging, in terms of the grammar and syntax—makes for an impatience—a restlessness! there’s the connection!—that forces the reader to go to the next line in order to find the grammatical/syntactical closure that feels like satisfaction, like we’ve landed at last after having spun in the air a bit. Or it feels like stability after a stretch of instability.

Not that I invented any of this, or that I ever think about this when I’m writing a poem—truly. Everything I’ve just said is what I figured out, after people kept asking me how my poems worked. I never really thought about it, since I write the way I think, it’s just how my thoughts come out. But it’s true that there’s the more self-conscious part, where I’m laying out the sentences on the page. I mostly get there by reading my draft out loud many times, trying to hear where there should be a pause, and determining whether that pause will be the pause of a line break, a comma, a semicolon, or something else. I want the punctuation, line length, line breaks all to work like musical notation, and I think of the drafting of a poem’s form as a version of musical notation. With luck, that should mean that how I hear the poem in my head will be how a stranger reads the poem aloud. That’s the goal. But since we all have various ideas about something as small as a line break—I believe a pause follows a line break, many people don’t and read a poem as if it has no line breaks at all—I remind myself that I’m always searching for a form for the same reason that I write in the first place, to make something make sense to me.