A Review of Carl Phillips's The Rest of Love
B. Renner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004;
paperbound, 2005

There are so many fine lines in Carl Phillips's latest book that one regrets even more strongly the lines that add nothing to the poems -- or, more to the point perhaps, add only what explicative prose would feel the need to tell us. Make no mistake: there are lines here as good as any you are likely to read in a new volume of poems in any given year, lines that deserve to be preserved for centuries, in isolation, like the fragments of Archilochos or Sappho. And indeed it is mostly as fragments one would wish them preserved, excised from their larger settings. Reading only these lines from the title poem, for example,

Orpheus is stupid,
or is heartless, or -- what?,

He looks back.
He's lost everything.

And his own story begins in earnest.

one might immediately want to remove the unnecessary second "is," "what", "own" and "in earnest', but otherwise one faces a clean flow of thought. One begins to imagine what the rest of the poem was like, positing a lost beauty. But the lines I've quoted are preceded by about 30 short lines of rumination and exposition, the core of which concerns the length of time a bull's carcass must rot before bees use it for a hive. Those lines which specifically convey that image provide a marvelous analogue to Orpheus's second life, his -- according to Phillips -- real life. But there is no need to dilute the sharp lyric impact of the 7 or so essential lines with others such as --

Sometimes, I think I dreamed it,
or I am saying it like a thing

that I would do,
when I would never,
and calling it art:

that first time,
that second time. . .

Phillips reveals an unwillingness to trust the reader to make the connections he wants made: he feels the need to mention "art" and [elsewhere] "mythology" directly, as though Orpheus's name is not enough; as though the hived carcass, though a bull's instead of a lion's, is not enough to bring us Samson, another story of a life wasted by love.
There are other poems with a better ratio of necessary to unnecessary lines -- "Tower Window," "Late, in a Time of Splendor," "Like Stitches Where the Moths Have Made an Opening," "The Vow" -- but still more where a 40-line meditation in Phillips's trademark stop-start rhythm, reflecting the jagged edges of the brain's processes, holds only a 6-line nugget. If only Phillips, in editing his drafts, could realize that a 6-line nugget would be richness enough, exhumed and set off by itself, rather than almost lost in the profuse whole.