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POETRY: Finding A Better Use

Wanda Phipps, Field of Wanting (BlazeVOX Books, 2008)

There’s no denying that American poetry in the last few years (with exceptions) has been extremely, one-sidedly intellectual. New technical devices are used and played with in ways that are often ingenious, but most times lacking in passion. So it comes as a pleasant surprise when a book such as Wanda Phipps’ Field of Wanting appears, one that is stylistically innovative, but that aims to create a more full-blooded verse that illuminates the everyday difficulties of making a life amidst a jumble of fragile relationships, temp jobs, and all-night gab sessions.

An excellent example of her skill at employing methods usually reserved for intellectual ends appears in the sequence, “Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets.” Many purely intellectual writers have produced lively sequences in which each poem uses lines and thoughts from the previous poem in a playful, sometimes edgy way. Phipps uses this technique to cover more powerfully-felt material, charting with sensitivity the cracking apart and aftermath of a long-term relationship gone sour. Take the constantly modulated idea of getting a good night’s rest: “now I sleep with books // cry in the bathtub at 3 a.m.,” which later becomes “to lie in seriously individual slumber”—as if one’s sleep differs depending on who or if someone accompanies you to bed—which then paradoxically becomes “all night awake and stubbornly happy,” implying insomnia is healthier (in terms of her adjustment) than trudging through hours of deep sleep.

Phipps captures love’s dissolution so well, not because she is super-attuned to loss, but because she is good at conflating day-to-day events, the ongoing emotional continuum, and re-functioned writing techniques. Or, to elaborate, just as a Cubist painting of a café table uses a jangling, neurotic surface to convey the mundane aspects of Parisian life, so Phipps creates (at bottom) a hard-as-nails slice of life, depicting a roundelay of readings, cocktails, part-time gigs, and constantly eroding, but renewable, relationships.

In “Rose Window,” for instance, she speaks of “Breakfast at Veselka’s” where “eating then seemed not as real as it had been in my dream the night before.”  The unreality of too much over-refined verse is given a forceful grounding with the depiction of a person who is still rethinking and reliving a dream in the first hour of waking. Or, take the equally happy “Zither Mood,” where, comically shifting the worship of literature, she thinks, on waking up, that the career manual she splurged on last night must contain a secret to success. Well, maybe not, but she likes to think it holds a hidden jotting, so that, in all its utilitarianism, it recalls the best poetry volumes.

 … I love

what hides in the secret

corners of poems like codes

begging to be broken

Think of Milton, whose purpose was to gather up, even while he considered it pagan and error-filled, the best fruits of classical learning. So, I imagine, Phipps carefully culls techniques that are usually deployed to display wit, erudition, and ingenuity, to find usable means by which to document, with great clarity, the shallows and depths of our contemporary maelstrom.


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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