Riding Westward Poems

Carl Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

64 Pages



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What happens when the world as we've known it becomes divided, when the mind becomes less able—or less willing—to distinguish reality from what is desired? In Riding Westward, Carl Phillips wields his celebrated gifts for syntax and imagery that are unmistakably his own—speculative, athletic, immediate—as he confronts moral crisis. What is the difference, he asks, between good and evil, cruelty and instruction, risk and trust? Against the backdrop of the natural world, Phillips pitches the restlessness of what it means to be human, as he at once deepens and extends a mediation on that space where the forces of will and imagination collide with sexual and moral conduct.

Table of Contents

Bright World
Torn Sash
Sea Glass
The Way Back
Radiance versus Ordinary Light
The Smell of Hay
The Lower Marshes
Bow Down
A Summer
To a Legend
Close Your Eyes
Shall Want for Nothing
In Waves
The Messenger
Turning West
Lost, but for a Few Still-Bright Details
The Cure
Deepest, Where the Water Looks More Green
Break of the Day
Armed, Luminous
Riding Westward



Praise for Riding Westward

"Phillip's eighth collection continues his focus on eros. In this volume, sex is figured as ‘pillaging,' desire as the longing to be ‘punished' and ‘crushed.' The poems are charged with this liminal eroticism, made hotter by suggestive ambiguities—unfixed images, lost referents, passing detail echoed nowhere else: ‘the slightest act, his removing the cross from / around his neck before fucking a stranger, a grace almost—" (from ‘Ocean'). These poems lure readers to transgressive places in the imagination. But there is no judgment here—rather there is release from judgment, a repeated insistence that ‘moral landscapes' are not useful. ‘The body is not an allegory—" Phillips writes in ‘Sea Glass,' ‘it / can't help that it looks like one.' This poetry empowers us to explore much that our society deems transgressive, dangerous, and frightening. The book's title, understood as a movement toward death, is reflected most strikingly in ‘Bow Down,' about the loss of an intimate. But the movement west is also toward freedom, empowerment. In the title poem, Phillips marries these metaphorical movements to the figure of the cowboy, who rejects civilization and its mores to explore a frontier, whether of land or of body. Phillips's cowboys-singer watches his word fly: ‘falling, settling into / . . . that larger darkness, where the smaller / darkness that our lives were lie softy down.' The empowering lyric rides forward with us, but the destination is finally sunset. Phillips poems offer few concrete ledges—few places for a reader to pause, certain about setting or action. With their refusal of narrative and unpredictable associations of thought and image—their lyric logic—the poems alternately reveal and withhold, and then beckon toward their secrets. But for careful, receptive readers, Riding Westward offers great sensuality and a serious moral interrogation."—Benjamin S. Grossberg, The Antioch Review

"Carl Phillips has long written poems that ignore contemporary American aesthetic doctrines, and that fact alone is heartening. He is entirely comfortable with abstraction, often building his poems on lofty language, and he is unafraid to 'tell' as much as he 'shows.' His poems speak in the tone of one speaking to an intimate about shared experience, without the kind of sarcasm we often call irony . . . What is more, the reader is seldom sure where or when the situation described by one of Phillips's poems is occurring. Because of these qualities, the poems in Phillips's latest collection, Riding Westward, may at first confound readers who are used to so-called ‘accessible' poetry. In fact, accessibility is one of those contemporary doctrines I mentioned above—on which Phillips thankfully ignores . . . While reading this collection, one often finds oneself unconsciously repositioning oneself imaginatively in order to create, along with the poem, the story to which the poem alludes. The fact that this is effective is a testimony to the power of this collection—it is not something a lesser poet could achieve . . . One way to describe Phillips's poems is to acknowledge that they function more evocatively than descriptively. What I mean is that they are not by any means about life, which would be no accomplishment at all; rather, they are of life, out of it, and convincingly so, which is a great accomplishment indeed. His poems are informed by and allude to experience without having to entirely create or recreate experience, and this is the source of their undeniable authority. In 'Turning West,' Phillips himself makes a similar distinction when he mentions 'a distance like that between writing from a life / and writing for one . . .' (Phillips's italics). Writing for a life might mean writing in order to have a life, to create one out of a paucity of living or being present in the world. This is decidedly not the kind of writing Phillips does. It is clear that his poems are from life. The evidence of this is the powerful effect they have on the reader who is willing to lay aside expectations for simply accessible poetry and who is willing to imaginatively engage, as with an intimate, in these evocative, allusive conversations."—Luke Hankins, Indiana Review

"In Donne's poems. 'Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,' the speaker makes a prayer of preparing to ride away from the sunrise. The sun is a blazing sign of the divine, which the speaker's humanness won't let him encounter—'Who sees God's face, that is self-life, must die.' Donne never addresses the ride of the poem's title, though one might understand the poem itself to be the ride, and the white space after the final line to be the horizon. The poem is primarily a metaphysical look backwards, with the speaker owning no forward motivation except fear of an incendiary holiness. Riding Westward takes the most active, secular, contemporary part of Donne's title and locates its poems in that territory. Phillips shows us a path by which the divine can be found, intertwined with love, with the crumbled foundations of myth on which out stories sit, and with a sense of identification outside of ourselves, masterfully played out, as always, in his syntactically ornate, nuanced descriptions . . . Phillips always shows mastery. His characters reflect each other, show dissonance, and act out the masteries modeled by the divine defined by Donne. This reshuffle of identities is brilliantly played out in 'Affliction' . . . A testament to Phillips' brilliant relationship to tradition."—Chad Parameter, Pleiades

"Phillips' eighth poetry collection showcases his distinct philosophical bent, penchant for classical allusions, and shift-gear, em-dash syntax. This is a tidal collection with poems that are wavelike in their formation, breaking and falling abruptly or gently rinsing the shore, all in a dance of creation and erasure. The poems' speakers question cruelty, desire, regret, and possibility, often through interaction with the natural world, whether a sacred grove or a mutilated bird. Phillips' masterful ordering of the poems evokes connection through themes and imagery, and produces an overall sensation of rhythmic rising and falling. Although Phillips' poems are challenging, their fearless questioning and fierce exploration prod the reader to think. They also, occasionally, give up such simple and rewarding nuggets of wisdom as 'some mistakes, given time, don't seem mistakes — / I'm counting on that; others though perhaps / a little bit still worth being sorry for, / lose force.' Riding Westward offers an expansion of mind that can only be compared to riding out into the boundaryless field of vision our Western plains offer."—Janet St. John, Booklist

"The prolific, always articulate Phillips attained late-'90s acclaim for a series of books (among them Pastoral and From the Devotions) whose intricate clauses and mythic topics followed the passions and trials of physical embodiment and erotic (especially same-sex) love. In recent years, he has sought clearer, more various styles in which to take on the same concerns: never more than in this eighth collection, which proposes 'cruelty as a means of understanding . . . love's conditions—not clear,/ but clearer,' and wants us to admit, 'that's/ how we like it, I'll break your heart, break mine.' Short sentences mixed with long, arresting confessions mixed with hard explanations, make parts of the love poems and antilove poems as memorable as ever. Phillips's command of syntax, while changing favored forms, remains, as does his acquaintance with the knots and contradictions of desire: 'Trust me,' one poem asks, 'the way one animal trusts another.'"—Publishers Weekly

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Brindled, where what's left of the light finds him, he cowers in front of me: one way, as I remember it, that a body having grown accustomed to receiving punishment expresses

receipt, or a readiness for it, or—wild, bewildered—the...

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  • Carl Phillips

  • Carl Phillips is the author of nine previous books of poems, including Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006; Riding Westward; and The Rest of Love, a National Book Award finalist. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

  • Carl Phillips Reston Allen