Rowan Ricardo Phillips doesn’t believe in repetition. Put another way, nothing repeats exactly, it’s not possible, and if it were it would be a kind of death by redundancy, a rending of time—so there are only echoes, reprisals, recurrences, ripostes, and relapses, but nothing ever occurring twice. This translates into a poetics of tradition that is new because it is firsthand, and a poem is either a failed repetition, or a liberated one. Phillips’s poetry believes in originality but only by way of a plunging backward into what was—the going forward part, well, that’s just life, and inevitable. In other words, you can’t possibly not be new. But you earn that newness, paradoxically, by a kind of deep study of the past. Which is not to say you aren’t contemporary, aren’t alive now with both feet firmly in the present.
His first book of poems, The Ground, starts with an ancient newness, a nine-line stanza repurposed from Edmund Spenser, who had used it in Renaissance England before Shakespeare was a name anyone knew. Phillips’s oeuvre begins in this way, and you aren’t meant to have to immediately hear the Spenser; that’s part of the point, that the traditions flow under the lines like an unseen river, unseen but profoundly there, not obscuring what’s on the surface but feeding it:
In the beginning was this surface. A wall. A beginning.
Tonight it coaxed music from a Harlem cloudbank. It freestyled
A smoke from a stranger’s coat. It stole thinned gin.
It was at the edge of its beginnings but outside
Looking in. The lapse-blue façade of Harlem Hospital is weatherstill
Like a starlit lake in the midst of Lenox Avenue …
It was this poem, published in 2012, that announced the emergence of a major talent. Willing to draw on all the available resources, willing to cull and reject and amplify—this, the work seemed to be saying, is an urgent poetics of inventive reinvention.
Heaven is the poet’s next book, out three years later, and Phillips brings to bear his sinewy line, reminiscent of Derek Walcott’s, on a Dantean project, a kind of latter-day riff on—or, really, sidelong glance at—the poet’s poet’s book of poems, Purgatorio. Dante’s ghost haunts Phillips’s tercets.
And so it’s worth noting that in his most recent collection, he goes from threes to twos: his third book is called Living Weapon, finished in the light of a burning year, 2020. In this well-wrought axe of a book, Phillips confronts the couplet, which he tells me he had avoided in his writing, distrusting its simulated closure. His confrontation is gorgeous. I haven’t seen a more invigorated, effective reassessment of the couplet in contemporary poetry. The poem is full of embedded, slightly submerged playings on the form. Most of the poems are verse paragraphs of text, and the couplet comes in and out, often reappearing in the final two lines, but always transmuted or somehow turned on its head. One poem ends in a couplet that ends in the word “like” followed by a line that ends in the word “love.” Which is a way of saying that coupletness is twoness, is a form of relationship. Some poems end in vintage rhyme (“learned”/“burned,” for example) but others make slant rhyme like “fire”/ “rye” or “it is”/“ISIS.” Others simply repeat the line wholesale, knowing the second time through is always changed by the first. Still other poems rhyme the same word (“dog”/“dog”) at the end of otherwise different lines.
Maybe a book in the couplet, despite his earlier resistance, was prefigured in his very first book, published in 2010, a collection of essays, a twenty-first-century account of Black literature, arguing for traditions and against reductions, and which is called: When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness. In Living Weapon, it’s as if the poet saw the couplet, with its inherent binary and polarized bound-up-togetherness, as an apt form for these latter-day polarized times. The Faber edition of Living Weapon starts with a devastating prelude elegy for his COVID-slain grandmother, and ends—answers—with an envoy elegy for George Floyd. Maybe the poem is a shattered mirror? A bleary screenshot?
George Floyd’s face floats slightly out of focus
In the same way a fire always does
Because there is no beginning or end
When you look at either, only the heat,
Remember the heat, how it burns the back
Of the throat as night screams his name through the flames.
The book contains only one standalone couplet, one two-line poem. Called “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” infusing Alexander Pope with William Blake’s prophetic mood:
I wandered through each chartered street
Till I was shot by the police.
JESSE NATHAN: The shapes your poems take often seem elegant, spare even, or maybe I mean exacting, yet also always robust and elaborate in surprising ways. How do you think about form in poetry? With a poem like “The Beatitudes of Malibu,” when did the final form emerge for you, at what point in the process? You mentioned your work on poems engaged with the couplet, even though for years you didn’t trust the couplet. Was that engagement a direct decision, or more of an unexpected emergence? A choice, or a haunting?
ROWAN RICARDO PHILLIPS: This is a great set of questions, Jesse. There are two vital aspects, call them perspectives, to thinking about form in poetry. One is the finished form. The other is the poem in composition, when it’s in process like an unfinished painting and hints at forms of completion that it may or may not fulfill. This process is a conversation—at times conscious and at other times unconscious—that a writer has with the poem that’s being made. What are you? What do you want to be? What do I want you to be? There’s this admixture of querying, listening, observing, and—rather least of all—reacting when I’m writing poems that lead to a final shape, a form.
Regarding couplets, it’s specifically the sense of conclusion (and aphoristic conclusion, at that) which has long left me on the fence about them. But I have used them in my work frequently. I have a poem in The Ground, “August in Fatigues,” that’s a mere couplet. But the way, for example, that the couplets at the end of Shakespearean sonnets ring and seal the deal always felt like a temperament far removed from my own. In Living Weapon, I wanted to experience what swimming in those couplet-infested waters was like, so the book ended up containing several sonnets that came to me like whales from the deep, singing, murky, and barnacled at the bottom by these pesky, sparkling couplets. So, in considering the choices from your question (a direct decision, an unexpected emergence, a choice, or a haunting) I’d have to go with a direct decision. That said, I was more interested in the experience than in the decision. For me, explorations of form are explorations of sensory experience. I tend to be less interested in the form, per se, as I am in the experience of being within it, whether that means as a writer or as a reader.
Coming now to “The Beatitudes of Malibu”: it basically came out as it is. The decasyllabic line, stanza shape, the number of stanzas, the tone—these were all there from the start. And it really did just emerge out of thin air: it began itself, as itself, and I simply felt compelled to catch it and care for it. I wrote it on the plane from LA to NYC and tidied it up a little after, but it really felt like a song in my head that I needed to write down; and so, I did. For a while, it was the longest poem I had written. And there’s so much in it, but at the heart of it is a sense of poetic testimony like my favorite line in “Howl” (it comes out of nowhere): “this actually happened.” I’m not very high-tech, I’m not on social media much, either; but I remember posting on Instagram some “album notes” about that poem (and Heaven in general: you can find them on Instagram if you search for #heavenalbumnotes). I didn’t want to give explanations for the poem (the poem is its explanation, after all), but I did want to offer glimpses of what’s in the poem. There are some glimpses of my notebook of the first draft of it, that “blue Malibu” in the poem, Arun in his car, and even a shot of the drive that inspired the poem. It’s not something I’d done before or since, but something about the poem inspired me to give it this additional, diaphanous appendage—the ghosting limb of its making. It also took on another form when it became the title and centerpiece for an exhibit last year at the David Kordansky Gallery in LA. I love that people love this poem. I love it, too. It’s a poem of force.