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Rapid Transit

Carl Phillips
Speak Low
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

"Speak Low” is a pitch perfect title for Carl Phillips’ twelfth book, at once equaniminous and unsettling, personal and universal. Here is a poet who listens to “the silences…of intimacy…risks…the dead” and can tell us what silence says and how it sounds.

Phillips plumbs the powerhouse subjects: fate, ambition, love and death. Deliberation becomes a current he leads us down, suspended within a concordant slurry of images, desires and emotions. In a restrained tone he paints dazzling passages: “The waves/sheathe the rock’s face with departure’s pattern—then the pattern goes too.” The back and forth of patterns are parsed to great effect throughout as are Deleuzian theories about repetition.

The author convincingly reads human nature into the physical world. Willow trees become actors, “waving as if they could change destiny.” The author wants to believe and examines belief, enlisting natural counterparts with intense effect, “like when a raven unfolds / its blackery to its fullest span.”

He writes about spaces in the inbetween. “Between everything we know we should do, and all the rest.” “Between recklessness and detachment.” “Between grand events.” “Between fetish and perverse sorrow.” Between the “not yet broken and the brokenness after, the distilled silence… inside that.”

 Ever on the verge, before the waterfall, Phillips follows the course with “Sterling” refinement and offers the possibility of a resignation that will never be resigned. “Exaggerated grace” pours through these exceptional poems. In his cool fusion of opposites, Phillips grasps the unattainable.

Hassan I. Sirius, ed.
Leary on Drugs
(RE/Search Publications, 2009)

A potent advocate of freedom—Timothy Leary was the George Washington of the 20th Century. He was the psychedelic Pied Piper who introduced LSD to Allen Ginsberg whereafter the two formed a pact to change the world. This addition to Leary’s oeuvre is a capstone to the veteran and a primer for the initiate.

Culled from 40 years of writings and lectures, Leary considered many aspects of drugs. As a psychiatrist, he understood the brain both neurologically and cognitively.

At Harvard, Leary started a psilocybin research group after eating magic mushrooms in Mexico. In 1961 he first tried LSD and early on conducted acid tests in prison. Later, as a prisoner, he conducted illicit acid parties.

The selections are by turns autobiographical, informative, humorous, defiant, philosophical, political, and often poetic. He described an acid trip thusly: “The world around you dissolves into shimmering latticeworks of pulsating white waves, into silent, subcellular worlds of shuttling energy.”

Leary’s story would make a killer movie. His life was dashing and daring—from ecstatic to tragic. His first wife committed suicide, as did a daughter. His second wife is Uma Thurman’s mom. John Lennon wrote “Come Together” for his gubernatorial campaign.

As a “criminal” Leary traveled the world seeking legal refuge. He experienced oppression and warned us about losing our rights while remaining optimistic about the universe. He sought “to produce nature loving, tribe-solidarity, humanist experiences.”

Timothy Francis Leary fought for us with words. Everyone should read this call to utopia while it’s legal.

Norma Cole
Where Shadows Will
(City Lights, 2009)

Norma Cole
Natural Light
(Libellum, 2009)

Skipping beats—jumping textures, welcome to Norma Cole’s telescopic compressions of the “first person plural.” Whether it’s vernacular (“in your dreams”), (“tons of clouds”) or technical (“Anacoluthon”), (“More ’Pataphysics”) the poems probe language’s borders, blotting up spilled light.

Cole jumbles her subjects and then splices them into a “crosscut universe.” Process and form are alloyed into durable filigree. Line leads to line, word to word. The seams are generally recessed and sagacious, occasionally “dropping stitches” to inject astonishment.

Serial prose poems like “Artificial Memory 7” contrast with spare verse like “Allegory 10.” This presentational switching emphasizes Cole’s skill at subjective switching in which everything is part of a “subtext hard-pressed to find a resting place.” Yet there are respites, ambiences embedded in the relentless forward motion.

For me, a fluid lyricism is the glue in these ever-morphing, syntactically scintillating fountains: “all clipped together the fog cool dogeared it spotted with sparkles of light its heels.”

The “international memory” of Where Shadows Will, becomes “Collective Memory” in Natural Light. Here the fragments are fixed in their dispersed brokenness: “The nothing spread out all around.”

In “No Time at All” each isolated phrase reads like a separate performance in a matinee program. We are freed from narrative and delivered to the telling where “something blinked back.” The work is heroic an “epic without story.”

Above all, “the poem is a toy” and Cole, an ideal playmate. Abandon despair all ye who enter here. “Verily, kiddo.”


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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