A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop at the West Chester University Poetry Conference. The was reviewing poetry. I brought several books from my office, and asked each of the participants to pick one, take it home, and review it. I told them I’d post their reviews here. The first one has arrived.
Circumstances Beyond Our Control
By Robert Phillips
Johns Hopkins. 80 pp. $35.00 (hardcover) $16.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Suzanne Blair
As a member of the “transition generation” (those born in late 1930s or early 1940s), Robert Phillips is old enough to have learned that most of what happens “beyond our control” is unwelcome. Nevertheless, he intends to keep his sense of humor.
But Phillips is no self deceiver. The discomfort and dwindling powers of aging are frequent themes in this his seventh volume of poetry.
At times Phillips is guilty of taking the easy road. In “Memory” after recalling the names of his elementary school teachers and reciting “all the stars of Republic Pictures / Westerns (Lash Larue!),” he concludes with the predictable “Now if only I could remember / where I parked my car...”
Fortunately, other poems are fresher. In the unsettling dramatic monologue “Life and Limb,” the speaker, a former slave reputed to be 137 years old, laments the amputation of his second leg and voices his fears in a mix of trite jokes and wordplay. But here Phillips uses clichés to good effect by reminding us what the words actually mean. “...I don’t have / a leg to stand on. They took / both away...” Rustic language and naïve voice are appropriate to this poem and add to the poignancy that lies under the irreverent humor.
The ex-slave’s predicament epitomizes that of many elderly patients who may have no control over their own medical treatment.
both away, they said,
to give me life—me
who already lived six score
and seventeen. What riles
me is, my left hand feels
numb. If I tell, they’ll
prune the whole arm off
while I’m asleep some night.
The collection contains other dramatic monologues, all different in tone.
In “Variation on Vallejo’s ‘Black Stone on a White Stone’“ the bemused poet predicts his own death “in Houston in the jungle heat, / in air-conditioned air.”
The speaker in the very funny “Texas Cheerleader Murder Plot” explains why she is compelled to eliminate the mother of her daughter’s rival for a place on the cheerleading squad. The success of this poem rests in the finely tuned Texas voice that can proclaim superiority succinctly: “My hair’s bigger.”
Phillips grows serious with “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” He includes a number of facts from the 1911 disaster but haunting images make this monologue a poem. Rose Rosenfeld, a seamstress who survived the fire, tells of factory doors locked “to keep us from stealing scraps of cloth.” As she and others climb to the roof of the burning building:
I saw girls in shirtwaists flying by,
Catherine wheels projected like Zeppelins
out open window, then plunging downward,
sighing skirts open parasols on fire.
Most of the poems in this collection are in free verse, but even those in form are accessible. A comic villanelle composed of unintentionally funny headlines includes such lines as “Prostitutes Appeal to Pope,” and “Miners Refuse to Work After Death.”
“An Empty Suit” is set in a thrift shop where the poet plays detective, conjuring a man from clues of “smoky dove gray” fabric, “the frayed bottoms of the trousers,” and “two red pills / in the right-hand jacket pocket—.” The repetition of the words “You can tell” at the beginning of all but the final two quatrains lends a hint of litany to the poem, echoing the ritual of the man’s imagined funeral.
In “Grandfather’s Cars,” death, the circumstance most beyond our control, intrudes in an unexpected way. When Grandfather attempts to break out of his black sedan rut with a tomato-red Lincoln convertible, his wife rebukes him in words “that cut like a band saw”:
All our friends are dying like flies—all!
You can’t drive that thang in a funeral procession.
Reluctantly (“All my life I’ve wanted something sporty.”), Grandfather exchanges the convertible for “a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.”
Grandfather may have backed down, but after reading this collection, one can easily imagine Robert Phillips at the wheel of something sporty—even in a funeral procession.
Suzanne Blair is a writer in Arkansas.