Online Edition: Fall 2003

Sand

Dennis Phillips

Green Integer ($10.95)

by Deborah Meadows

Dennis Phillips's ninth collection of poetry, Sand, is a beautifully sedate work in twenty-one parts beginning with "Prelude" and "Altered Landscape" then concluding with "A Chart Room" and "Clarity." Like many works in the avant-garde aesthetic, there is a tracing of recurrence rather than a developmental journey, a deflation of or missing self, an emphasis on placing pressure on syntax to yield an opening away from familiarity and zones of social comfort. Indeed, this is a poetry of skepticism. In the earlier work A World, Phillips turned away from the impossibility of knowing and inward to "A stream of noise skyward indicating a population never graspable"; whereas Sand reviews, in part, problems with generalities, such as in this fascinating critique of art and state power:

These are the quotes, they said.

These symbols are accomplishments.

Troops, someone said.

The effect is too general. These
correspondences, just gilded,
tremendous in emptiness.

Repose is the compliment of which value?
Distance? Relation? Volume?

We were there, we saw them.
These are their responses, as if
witnessing or cavalry
attended these factors.

A slightly revised version, this poem from 1996's Credence carries culturally-cluttered terms such as "correspondences," "gilded," and the two-part line with "witness" and "cavalry" opening onto the moral dimension of knowledge. That is, if serious things happen, people murdered by state power, for example, it's not sufficient to say that complete knowledge is never possible under any circumstances, but that quite a lot may hinge on the "witness" account. Can one see the world through a grain of sand?

Oddly, Phillips's moral urgency is expressed within dull, distant observation. Very flat in affect, the poems suggest the observed fragment of narrative cannot rationally justify an unobserved arc of completion nor can it neglect variability:

As emptiness seems to preside. Their faces were upturned, eyes carefully covered, as they must have known. Yes, a herd of bison, this early, the cave record, yes, a frail romance. Having opened the topic a crying or whining or squeaking was heard. Were they aware of the error?

But to return to the problem of generality. Scottish philosopher David Hume is noted for first stating the problem of induction in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40): that deriving generalities from instances relied on circular reasoning. For example, predicting future events such as a solar eclipse involves moving from observed matters of fact to unobserved matters of fact, and even those beyond the range of direct observation. Hume pointed out that we are additionally caught out because our inferences are based on an expectation of the uniformity of nature. He concludes skeptically that there can be no rational or logical justification of inferences that move from observed to unobserved, that they are based on custom and habit, and that human inclination to be pattern-forming creatures doesn't constitute a rational justification. Twentieth-century philosophers have dissolved, rather than solved, this by arguing that induction is a false problem based on linguistic confusion--in a sense, absenting it from the world.

In Sand:

Reliant on observation, dependent on promptitude.
Excited by the tardy, enthralled by the oblivious.

The only response unrehearsed
would be the particulars of flora and fauna
or a record kept of habits, depths and phases.

Readers of Phillips may tease out how variation works through his poetic devices. Laying bare Phillips's tool kit shows, but not exhaustively: frequent use of passive voice implying either critique of prevailing moral responsibility or alienation effects:

Thus the strategy was confirmed
just as those around the table felt it had lost its meaning.

frequent use of conditional tenses reminding the reader of the unreliability of knowledge:

An arrangement could be made to meet others. And yet now a cloud could clearly be seen.

a de-escalation of portentous statement from the idiom of Poundian mastery of sonority and requisite suspension of independent authority to an empowering resistance:

Who were they to question their resources?

As if a simple implantation, fantasy or truth-telling, a feast day, the way a new idea (technology) will always seem threatening, one smiles, the end is sightlessly measured but linearly.

And so they who would like to give it or they who withhold it or they are characters and may do anything.

Subtract something but even that is history, or graft something on, their journeys to distant capitals, for example: they who reign so popular.

Readers of Phillips may make significant connections to other art forms and other philosophical traditions that employ similar hall-of-mirrors approaches. That we may notice Phillips notice that he notices--so like the three-part echo in Credence--provokes original questions on the role of witness. Is the visual information we have here worthier than edifying "imagery"? Other times Phillips's syntax is pressured, if not pressed to the breaking point. Here's the absurd:

It had been late.

or the funny:

Gradually one is surrounded by ghosts.

Social and linguistic critics can be appreciated when their flaws are available and vulnerable, too. Here, the disembodied narrator so alienated by events, social scripting and brainwashing comes to be an overbearing source of control:

But then nothing was
surprising or at least on schedule.

Yet might sex offer a contrast to disconnection found in claims to universal status in many forms of argument or evaluation? Such is the lovely "Island Thinking" segment:

This is island thinking.

The whisper, not an appropriate ending.
The hotel's adrift, placeless, postless
as if a logical argument
or the world of judgment.

Where some may apply the technique of variable foot in sonorous properties of poetry, Phillips may offer a variable observation. To deflect conclusions may be familiar to many students of the experimental tradition; however, to critics of Hume, to avoid error, the skeptic also forfeits a corresponding possibility to grasp a truth. Or, placed within terms of emotional economy: the disengagement when seeking the error-free can turn on the avoidance of happiness. But we must remember the historic moment of Hume's work involved some of his attentions being directed toward disproving miracles. In response to the cultural wars of his time, he argued that miracles are violations of laws of nature whose evidence he thought overwhelming, and that the possibility that violations of the laws of nature may have occurred lack the force of evidence necessary to justify the arrogance and intolerance that characterize many religions. Not a bad conclusion, and one Phillips might appreciate in a deconstruction of the power structures ("anthems") supported by forms of certitude:

No detail exempts us. But every detail is a trap.

Please don't imagine anything global.

The carp emerge at feeding time
and look through dangerous film
for the keeper.

Hume posited that we need an unreliable third faculty, imagination, which through a series of outright mistakes leads us to believe in our selves and in independently existing objects. Many critics point out that this third faculty saves us from the excesses of philosophy. Sand concludes:

he tried to remember not to forget
any of his important items.

The epic of description followed him.

And yet it was pleasing: He knew
that he was not bitten.

They were often confused by his clarity.

Times come, he thought.

Fall 2003 Table of Contents