Rowan Ricardo Phillips

FSG, 2015

From the first lines of its first poem, Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s Heaven establishes that, among the larger considerations of its content, the music of the line is emphatic and critical:

Perpetual peace. Perpetual light.
From a distance it all seems graffiti.
Gold on gold. Iridescent, torqued phosphors.
But still graffiti. Someone’s smear on space.

Wallace Stevens may be Phillips’s key dance partner in Heaven, both linguistically (from “The Beatitudes of Malibu”: “A poem is a view of the Pacific / And the Pacific, and the Pacific / Taking in its view of the Pacific”) and in terms of pursuit or attempt: the Heaven Heaven’s chasing encompasses paradise, certainly, and afterlife, yes, but in the most resonant poems here, Phillips considers Heaven as fleeting and (necessarily) imprecise meaning, Heaven as the temporary realm in which the mind has found, for a moment, “what will suffice.”

While Stevens offered thirteen ways of seeing, however, Phillips offers splits, twin-visions: there are two poems—one early, one late—titled “Mirror for the Mirror,” which do mirror each other (in line lengths and phrasing). The echoing continues: the lines quoted in the paragraph above from “The Beatitudes of Malibu” are on page 26; on page 43, “Pax Americana” begins “In the desert there is a pocket that / is the poem.” The guitars played by the speaker and his friends in “Boys” recur in “Musica Universalis”: “A planet pulled through a year in the sky, / Like the body of a guitar hauled up / to its headstock.” The repetition works as a sort of antagonism, an undercutting by Phillips to show that however much we wish the meanings we discover to adhere, they can’t and won’t. “This night sky won’t always have a meaning,” begins the second “Mirror for the Mirror” which doesn’t so much undercut as explode the first line of its twin: “This night sky won’t always be so Rothko.” The heaven of feeling as if you’ve found some meaning, Phillips shows as the book proceeds, is of necessity brief.

Which is not to say that Heaven is ponderous with its ideas and abstractions: Shakespeare and Chuck Close, Colorado and Paris, Wu-Tang and Homer each offer their own pleasures and access. But even in the book’s most straightforward pleasure, the reader’s likely to feel rigorous beauty thrumming beneath, the desperate search that’s led to the poetry’s temporary paradises.