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BOY by Patrick Phillips

University of Georgia Press, 2008, $16.95 paper, ISBN 9780820331195

Patrick Phillips' first collection of poems, Chattahoochee, was published in Z004. Its poems contained an almost Southern Gothic mix of intimate family violence braced by passionate interconnection. So dominant was the father that their family of five felt like a family of seven: "me and my brother,/ my sister, my mother/ my father and my father, and my father." Blood and blades, flame and surging river water, vultures and snakes appeared throughout the book, along with tears and sudden moments of tenderness. Man's-world sports and in-your-face challenges were counterpointed by deep feeling, close observation of nature, deft use of repetition and biblical rhetoric. Phillips was writing primarily of his childhood family and place, the experience of growing up and taking control of one's life, breaking free. Chattahoochee won the prestigious Kate Tufts Discovery Award and seemed more than promising, a first book of genuine, well-crafted accomplishment.

In his second collection, Boy, Phillips is attentive to the problems of being dominated by his powerful material. The book, sometimes willfully, sometimes organically, seeks to "fix the ruined / world," not just describe it. Phillips is, understandably, not finished with the childhood family dynamic, and much of Boy deals again with the often withdrawn childhood self, the competitive and headstrong brother, domineering and fearsome father, passive mother. They appear in numerous poems, and with them come the images of fire, fever, violence accidental and intentional, a boy's face again erupting in flame, a fetus again sensing a scalpel slicing through its mother during a cesarean section.

These things comprise Phillips' personal landscape of hazard, and he cannot yet help returning to them. As though to underscore the continuity between books, Boy begins with the same Francis Bacon epigraph Phillips used for the poem "To Fortune" early in Chattahoochee ("He that hath wife and children / hath given hostages to fortune"). But the poet is also moving ahead. It can be said that his earlier poems were about the way the past and present collide; in his new work, however, "the future and the past collide."

Some of this shift in perspective is due simply to growing a bit older, and to marriage and fatherhood. The boy of Phillips' title is now not only his remembered childhood self, but his son as well, and fatherhood brings a new dimension, astonished and sometimes playful, to the poet's voice. This is from "Untitled," about Phillips' son in the days before he was given a name:
You won't believe it now,
but for two whole days
you were only the baby,
the boy,
the X-Man, Dr. Who.

As he moves ahead, Phillips struggles to avoid duplication of effects. The new poems benefit from the shift in focus toward the family he is making, enabling him to think more clearly about the family he was born into. Boy has a philosophical dimension which places the poet at a distance from the earlier hurts, fears, and angers that remain part of his experience. He understands that "some mistakes cannot be mended." He can consider forgiveness, knowing now that "the fathers and the mothers / whose job it is to save us // are all frail, or far away, / or gone forever to their graves." Looking at his sleeping infant son, he can consider "How reckless it seems. / How naive: / to love a thing / so fragile and so weak." He can see a newborn as "unassailable proof/ there is good / in the bad universe." This sort of distance is a new and positive development in his poetry.

But distance carries risk for a poet writing from so deeply within his emotions and his lushly dramatic experience. Several poems feel forced, their emotion willed, grafted onto the poem rather than discovered within it. This is particularly true of a quartet of imitations scattered throughout the book. So "Piano," after a poem of William Meredith's, is much more melodramatic and posturing than Phillips' work tends to be, its language of broken or abandoned or unloved things, "wreckage in the alley," more over-the-top. Or "Everything," after the Danish poet Soren Ulrik Thomsen, in which the language loses all specificity ("this is for everything left out in the rain," "for ... the hole in everything," "this is for everything, everywhere turning to nothing"), making only gestures toward loss and anguish. There is also a longer poem, "Nathaniel," that fails to move far enough past the boyish attitudes of its boyish protagonists making fun of a deformed local minister.

Yet, immediately after a misstep like "Nathaniel," there is a mesmerizing and moving poem called "Matinee," about a couple going directly from the bad news of a biopsy consultation to the privacy of a movie theater and its comedy feature, while their grown children search for them. On the whole, there are more striking, successful poems in Boy than in Chattahoochee, and even with a half dozen weaker poems among the book's twenty-six offerings, Boy achieves a real advance over Phillips' impressive debut. Mixing strong shorter poems with sustained longer efforts, deepening his already powerful insights into the past ("what we scratch / and claw, and cannot keep"), opening new ground as fatherhood claims his attention, the poet continues to freshen his already profound gifts.

"Heaven," the final poem in the collection, showcases his strength as a lyric poet and his vision of how past and future connect: "It will be the past. / We'll all go back together. // Everyone we have ever loved, / and lost, and must remember. / It will be the past. / And it will last forever."
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Author:Skloot, Floyd
Publication:Harvard Review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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