Song of Himself
Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 72 pp.
Louis Zukofsky wrote that “the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.” “Tonight,” the first poem in Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s The Ground, easily passes the test. Its range of pleasures is wide.
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 facade of Harlem Hospital is weatherstill
Like a starlit lake in the midst of Lenox Avenue.
Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in.
And because tonight is curing the beginning let me through.
And everywhere was blurring halogen. Love the place that welcomed you.
The poem’s last sentence—“Love the place that welcomed you”—urges us to read it in more than one way: first as an imperative (the poet instructing himself to love the place where his life began), then as a metaphor (identifying love as that “place” that welcomed him). “Great poetry”—Zukofsky again—“achieves a continual growth of meaning (total poetic emotion).” Each reading of “Tonight” deepens our sense of its emotional meaning, and as its meaning grows, so does the range of pleasures it affords.
We turn the page to “Song of Fulton and Gold” (two streets in lower Manhattan). “The eye seeking home / has to lower / lower / lower / lower. The eye seeking home has to lower.” Phillips repeats these words three times, in three identical sections, and concludes with a single declarative sentence: “There are no towers.” The poet—his eye now lowered to post-terrorist-attack street level—moves on to “Terra Incognita”: “I plugged my poem into a manhole cover / That flamed into the first guitar, / Jarred the asphalt and tar to ash, / And made from where there once was / Ground a sound instead to stand on.”
Like great poems, great books of poetry also achieve a continual growth of meaning. By the third poem in The Ground, the reader is aware that Phillips is engaged in the act of composing a book, determined, in the first instance, by its title’s metaphor. The Ground, you might say, is a book formed strategically from the ground up—from Harlem Hospital on Lenox Avenue, from the corner of Fulton and Gold, from “ground zero.”
“Tonight” announces New York City as Phillips’s birthplace; it is also where he grew up and where he now lives. A graduate of Swarthmore and Brown, and a member of the Department of English faculty at Stony Brook, Phillips is a first-rate critic, the author of When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, a book of essays published by Dalkey Archive in 2010. He has also completed a translation from Catalan into English of Salvador Espiriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth, which Dalkey Archive will publish later this year. In When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, Phillips, who is of Antiguan descent, shows how black poets have created a complex counter-tradition outside the traditions that have ignored, excluded, or marginalized them. Phillips’s acute sense of the poet as an outsider—one who writes from what is essentially a position of critique—is an integral part of The Ground. The book is grounded not only on a brilliant sense of what the art of American poetry is today, but also on dazzling, totally original combinations of language and form, geography and autobiography, history, myth, and religion.
The voice of “Proper Names in the Lyrics of Troubadours” is colloquially direct, its ground autobiographical. “My parents never called me Rowan. / I’m Ricky, from Ricardo. / But not Ricky Ricardo,” the poem begins. “I’m also the first Phillips in my family.” The poet’s mother “decided Phillip, my father’s family name, sounded too much like a first name / (In America, at least). Rowan Phillip would lead inevitably / to Phillip Rowan. That was her story, and she’s sticking to it.” The poet adds that the name Rowan Ricardo Phillip, the name he almost had, is composed of “an Old Norse first name, / A Spanish middle name, / And one of those faux-English-faux-Dutch-sounding last names / That’s really Greek for lover of horses.” Rowan Ricardo Phillips, with an s, is “another of those names that straddles seas in the sails of unseen / Ships.” But it is still a name, the poet says, that “sounds typically West Indian to me.” It is “like ‘The West Indies’ indefinite. / An indefinite noun in an indefinite poem.” It took him, he tells us, “a while to accept it.”
In “Purgatorio, XXVI: 135–148,” a transposed version of the scene in Dante’s Purgatorio where Dante meets the great Provençal troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel, Phillips assumes a religious ground. In the text of Dante’s poem, Arnaut Daniel speaks in Provençal; in Phillips’s poem, he is replaced by Bob Marley, who speaks to the poet in his own vernacular—“I am Bob, who weep and strum and gather and / Love all tings lickle and small. Jah left I lung / And guitar to sing to everyone. All dem!”
The ground of “Two Studies of Derek Walcott” is both aesthetic and political. In the first study, “1.0: Lemon,” Phillips returns to his critical vision in When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness. “This essay,” he writes, “its ten words for syllables, line by line / Succumbs to its paragraphic weight, as one by one eight / Gather over their ninth life, its twelve occasions mythwork like / Months to a mayfly. Edmund Spenser’s house of exile aches.” The second study, “2.0: Neptune,” addresses “the length, the length, the length: your ambition / Strong like Spenser’s, who politicked in Ireland, while courting epic, / And caged his dark exilic woe behind lines burned black and lambent?”
After “Hell Gate, East River, New York” (“Near the black island’s old and tongueless lighthouse / That forks the East River’s passage to the ocean / And makes where there was once one current / Thousands of circling currents”), we arrive at “The End of His Little Book,” where “the story of that brave / And spirited poet, / Knave and ephebe of the city” comes to its end. The poet, mixing autobiography, myth, and religion, tells us that the book was first translated “from Antiguan into Catalan” and then “into American / By that brave / and Magnificent knight / Sir Roland Barbaro Burns,” who died before he could finish it. So, “[a]t the request of that noble lady whose name / Has been withheld at the bequest / Of her own benevolence,” the book was finished “by the brilliantly confused / Troubadour of unconfirmed descent, / Rowan Ricardo Phillips,” who hopes that, should any faults be found, they “be attributed to his ignorance,” and who “prays Our Lord, / Whose name Is holy, / in His infinite munificence, / To reward him for his labors / With the glory / Of paradise.”
Then the final words of a truly extraordinary book, the best first book by an American poet I’ve read in years:
Be found in this book,
He shall rue the day
He wrote it
And submit it
For the ground’s
About the Author
Lawrence Joseph is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law. His most recent books of poems are Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). His The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose will be published by the University of Michigan Press in 2011.