Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Circumstances beyond Our Control: Poems

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Circumstances beyond Our Control: Poems

Article excerpt

Robert Phillips. Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 88 pages. $16.95 (paper).

When my advisee Shannon arrived early for her noon appointment, I handed her Robert Phillips's new collection, Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems, opened to "Ghost Story." "see what you chink about that poem, Shannon, while you wait," I suggested. (She had taken my elements of poetry course a semester ago.)

Panic crossed Shannon's face. Moments later, though, her expression softened into a small smile. "Okay, here's what I think," said she. "This guy had a girlfriend who died, and he couldn't cry at the time, but then one night she showed up in a dream and told him she really cated about him, so then he was able to cry." Silence, then "Hey, it's a sonnet!" followed quickly by "even if it only has thirteen lines and doesn't rhyme right" and a softly triumphant, "I love poems I can understand."

I was proud of Shannon. Phillips's poem had spoken to her immediately and directly, not only about its subject but also about its form. In fact, her comments crystallized the aspects that I wanted to concentrate on in this review: the poems' seemingly modest diction, matter-of-fact tone, and accessible subject matter, and how even the free verse pieces that occupy most of the book are clearly informed by Philiips's mastery of traditional forms including, in this collection, "rightly rhymed" Shakespearean sonnets, whole poems in open couplets, and closed couplets to end free verse pieces.

Phillips has lived in the poetry world for a long time, not only as a poet but also as an academic, editor, administrator, and critic. The author or editor of thirty volumes of poetry, fiction, criticism, and other essays, he served in the 1990s as the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, where he now holds an endowed professorship. His writing has been honored with numerous prestigious awards. Circumstances Beyond Our Control is the third of his twelve volumes of poetry to be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in a series whose authors are all luminaries (including, for example, John Hollander, David St. John, X. J. Kennedy, and a former Poet Laureate of the United States, Josephine Jacobsen).

That Phillips is the literary executor and editor of Karl Shapiro should come as no surprise to his readers. A poet inevitably becomes the student of a poet whose work he or she edits, and Phillips's poetry exhibits many of the greatest strengths of Shapiro's, especially in its eclectic word choice. Shapiro's mixed diction in ''The Fly," whose early stanzas liken the insect to "snot," a polyhedron, and a Duncan Phyfe chair, echoes in a Phillips poem such as "Ode to a Banana," which moves from the neo-Romantic through Yiddish slang to pop culture, from aesthetic rapture through comedy to horror. …

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