Carl Phillips' Poems Draw Vivid Sexual Images

By Reviewed Jan Garden Castro | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

Carl Phillips' Poems Draw Vivid Sexual Images


Reviewed Jan Garden Castro, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


CORTEGE Poems by Carl Phillips 96 pages, Graywolf, $12.95

CARL PHILLIPS' poems in "Cortege" combine formal metric and symbolic associations with an unexpected sexual urgency that is concurrently ingenious and shocking. The red title on the cover has associations with Phillips' 1992 volume "In the Blood," which received the Morse Poetry Prize. Phillips is currently teaching creative writing at Harvard, on leave from his position as assistant professor in English and in African-American Studies at Washington University, where he has taught for the past two years.

In "Cortege," Phillips revisits the classical legacy - Auden, Dante, Ovid and the New Testament - from a gay perspective. Its four sets of poems exhibit gay male sexual encounters that range, like Dante's "Commedia," from infernal to paradisiacal. The poems display how lonely life is at times; they probe how unlikely, and sometimes unpleasant things happen. The poems show fears that are particular yet universal. The reader "visits" diverse individuals in the midst of random encounters and intimate exchanges. Finally, this book is filled with warning signs. The poems implicitly remind the reader that those who prey on lonely souls - and still haunt the familiar places - are more dangerous than their victims.

The collection's opening poem "The Compass," underscores the dual meanings in the text: the compass, an instrument for charting one's course, is aligned with the liturgical symbols for the four evangelists - John (eagle), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and Matthew (angel). …

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