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reviewed on May 16, 2024

Though he was won or been a finalist for virtually every major poetry award in the past fifteen years, Rowan Ricardo Phillips has remained strikingly—and, it seems to me, undeservedly—peripheral in contemporary poetry, outside of those conversations in which, online and within academia, the same names recur again and again, like a pop star with a publicist.


Silver, his third book, reminds one why this has been the case, invoking as it does such outré influences as Matthew Arnold, William Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens, the last of whom, in particular, one would have thought beyond the pale of the politically correct.  Neither, one may be appalled to learn, does the collection manage to cite one of the more culturally relevant Shakespearean tragedies in its epigraph, quoting instead from a minor scene in a middle act of Richard II.  Phillips writes primarily in pentameter in Silver, eschews the “project” for loosely related occasional poems, alludes to Schubert’s “Der Lindenbaum” and Milton’s “Lycidas,” and asks in the book’s masterful late long-poem, “Child of Nature,” “What forms / First: a thing or its form?”

This person is sitting alone at the poetry cafeteria.


That peripherality, though, and the otherwise unfashionable cultural history responsible for it, is why a book like Silver feels so strikingly original.  Phillips is an “American poet” in the 20th-century sense of that term, a public lyric poet who endeavors, like MacLeish and Merwin, to reconcile the opposed tensions of lyric and lived experience, of the wondrous and the worldly.  In Silver, he seeks what he calls a “poem of the interior / Flooded by the exterior.”  “I too,” Phillips writes


                    crave a bright ocean meadow while

            The sun braids the green with its warm gold.  Once,

            This seemed the only way to be and make

            A natural world.  But I can’t betray

            Where I’m from.  I don’t want that privilege.

            That doesn’t mean neighborhoods sprayed in lead

            Are like emerald meadows




            But what exists between them is both all

            There is and nothing at all […]


As he modulates between lyric and demotic modes, Phillips imagines poetry itself as a “scour[ing]” of experience in pursuit of “meaningfulness,” his poems chasing a kind of sublimation in sound before they are pulled inevitably back to the material:


            The bourgeoisie, certain that anyone

            Else is the bourgeoisie, August-stranded

            In the bright ennui of inheritance,

            Fall like soldiers onto this coastal town

            As a culebrón of clouds, suspended

            Minor chords, coax the sun from its sightless

            Perch, and pale gold LeBron James jerseys dot

            The bars lining the esplanade.


The passage, from the poem “El Pintor,” demonstrates not only the baroque quality of the lyricism in Silver, but the sophistication of Phillips’ wit as well, as a “culebrón”—or “snake”—of clouds prepares for the appearance of LeBron jerseys which themselves mark the omnipresent power of global capital; here as throughout the collection, sociopolitical critique is embedded organically into the situation of the poem, part of the reason that Silver shines with such fresh luster.


At moments, to be sure, reality intrudes too clumsily in Silver, tarnishing its shine.  Phillips is too adept at the ars poetica to settle for such sentiment as “To keep yourself honest […] To know, deep in your heart, that every poem has already been written.”  And one has encountered far more nuanced treatments of the pandemic, I suspect, than a statement like “In the weeks between her death and being / Laid to rest, life became COVID-19.” 


But then, in the poem “La Pulga,” about Lionel Messi, Phillips rises to the grandeur of “And yet, as all things within the sight of Jupiter / Belong to Jupiter, the ball arrives to you.”


A slender collection in an era of door-stoppers, understated in a moment of overstatement, Silver hums and dazzles with its radiance.  It is quiet yet bright, like a star.  It is the contradiction Phillips himself names in the poem “Paradise Lost,” some “uninhabited / Space: this epic of epics, / This American song."

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