Elegy For a Broken Machine, Patrick Phillips’ unapologetically analog third collection, invokes stoicism from its first page: “Listen,” the speaker’s father says to him in a dream, setting down his wrench in the family garage, “dying’s just something / that happens sometimes.” To some extent, the rest of the collection belies this stoicism, attempting, and mostly failing, “not to stare at the there-/but-for-the-grace-of-God-//go-I” of death, circling it relentlessly while struggling to illuminate it. That’s not a criticism; Phillips’ spare lyrics and repeated invocation of metaphor make clear that he’s approaching the subject obliquely, and in doing so acknowledge an intrinsic unknowability that hangs about it like “glued on / cotton mist.”
Even setting aside the well-traversed subject matter, much here will feel familiar—the “half-light” and “terrible dark” and “keening” gulls that all signal lyric content—but Phillips takes his central conceit seriously, and his relentless interrogation of it pushes Elegy into intriguing territory. Through this lens, something as sacrosanct as the family is revealed to be a kind of assembly line, endlessly propagating nature-and-nurture’s fall-out. In “Barbershop,” for instance, a mirror “casts / my son’s grandsons into infinity before me,” while “father’s fathers / stretch behind,” and in “Mercy,” pain-as-play is handed down generationally, from father, to speaker, to sons. The poems touch upon the engine of capitalism, with its tendency to confuse and conflate its machines and the men and women who operate them, but prefer instead to romanticize the kind of hard-edged, working-class citizens that populated a certain brand of American poetry in the middle-to-late 20th century: grimy, tough, boozy, and sensitive. Because of this, the gestures the poems make to human labor, and its impact on the body, too often feel static, like set pieces propping up a peculiar nostalgia for Fordist linearity in a world of endlessly flexible accumulation.
It’s not an empty nostalgia, however. In Elegy’s best poems, Phillips’ relentless repurposing of convention becomes a strength: the poems’ use of familiar lyric devices (of lineation, images, typography) reveals the baldly biomechanical machinery behind “the lyric poem,” which is itself a kind of engine fueled by tradition and influence—in this case Auden, (“Spell Against the Gods”), Justice and Vallejo (“Variations on Text by Donald Justice”), Roethke, Levis, and/or Levine. That the collection does not take us anywhere new with regard to its subject is no surprise, and no matter. Elegy for a Broken Body makes clear that it’s not innovation but attention that counts: “even the silence, / if you listened, / meant something.”