From the Devotions

phillipsCarl Phillips
Graywolf Press ($12.95)

by Heather Wang

Carl Phillips's latest collection, From the Devotions, centers on the absolute necessity of faith. For Phillips, faith is the only way of understanding one's existence as having some purpose in "the world's machinery." Without that understanding, there would be no reason for human beings to struggle through a life which would only seem intolerable.

Phillips writes with a maximum economy of language, a strong sense of rhythm, and the greatest structural elegance, making it all the more amazing when a single word or phrase stands out as being truer than the rest. "Tunnel" forces you to hold seemingly unconnected fragments of story and imagery distinct in your mind while waiting for relationships to emerge. "Two Versions of the Very Same Story" has an opposite effect: each "version" hits the reader with such breathtaking force that the poem's meaning is momentarily obscured. In "The Full Acreage of Mourning", Phillips takes you deep inside the speaker's grief ("The truth is, I was at the point of utter ruin"), then goes deeper, showing the difference between describing a thing and becoming its very echo.

The arrows in "As From a Quiver of Arrows" are questions flying out toward God. They start out specific and become progressively more universal, as the poet discovers that his need for acknowledgment outweighs his need for instruction. Whether the continuing silence that greets his questions is meant as a rebuke for his lack of faith, or portends something more ominous is unclear. What is clear is that while Phillips intends for these poems to serve God, their expression of human experience is a gift to the rest of us.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998