A National Book Award Finalist
Speak Low is the tenth book from one of America's most distinctive—and one of poetry's most essential—contemporary voices. Phillips has long been hailed for work provocative in its candor, uncompromising in its inquiry, and at once rigorous and innovative in its attention to craft. Over the course of nine critically acclaimed collections, he has generated a sustained meditation on the restless and ever-shifting myth of human identity. Desire and loss, mastery and subjugation, belief and doubt, sex, animal instinct, human reason: these are among the lenses through which Phillips examines what it means to be that most bewildering, irresolvable conundrum, a human being in the world.
These new poems are of a piece with Phillips's previous work in their characteristic clarity and originality of thought, in their unsparing approach to morality and psychology, and in both the strength and startling flexibility of their line. Speak Low is the record of a powerful vision that, in its illumination of the human condition, has established itself as a necessary step toward our understanding of who we are in the twenty-first century.
"One of our major poets, one who continues to find a way to define the ways we experience and imagine our language."—Keith Taylor, The Southern Review
"Phillips is a master of expressive syntax, athletic turns of sentence that mine feeling. His distinctive sentences, with their parentheses of meditation, their cunning asides, suspended parallels and affecting divagations, are a little bit like Latin and a little bit like intense conversation, with its allusive, mothlike movement."—Robert Pinsky, The Washington Post Book World
"In his 10th collection, Phillips contemplates matters of yearning and loss, memory and awareness, faith and reason. In the title poem, what begins as an observation of wind, water and light becomes a meditation on 'the less-than-clear distance / everything we know we should do, and all the rest—all / the rest that we do.' In 'The Centaur,' the poet captures the ambivalence of desire as the speaker kays in bed with his lover: 'It was as difficult to know, anymore, / the difference between being truly dissatisfied / and merely unastonished / as it was to look at him.' And in 'Distortion,' the sight of peonies, bursting in full bloom 'near to breaking,' reminds him of how 'excess, even in its smallest forms, seems to have its cost.' Regardless of subject matter, Phillips writes with lovely restraint and an intimate, humble voice that sounds something like prayer."—Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday
"Theme and style join perfectly in Speak Low, Carl Phillips' 10th collection of poetry. In poem after poem, the speaker turns to address questions of power. The style of the poems, as they frame and shape these questions, feels at once pliant and masterful. As the speaker in 'Living Together' announces, 'I keep thinking about force—its/ dehumanizing effect, both on the victim/ and on the one who wields it.' This concern with power haunts the book. Several poems explore the shifting territories of dominance, surrender, tenderness and indifference in sex. Nature, which is so often presented as a hide-and-seek affair in contemporary poetry, becomes instead a rock-scissors-paper game of domination and effacement . . . Speak Low insistently explores our implication within this world of force. Most poems in the book adopt a free-verse line whose fairly regular length and rhythms bear Phillips' syntactically complex, long and often meditative sentences, as if to capture the cadences of thought. The result subtly seconds the book's theme of power, because it brings echoes to the reader's ear of such 20th-century eminences as Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke. As in Rilke, Phillips' lines give his language a near-sculptural form, something like a fountain. The poems are structures of alternating firmness and give, as the sense spills from line to line . . . Readers will be disappointed if they come to Speak Low looking for some other typical pleasures of poetry, such as the excitement of figurative language or an abundance of sensuous detail. Without its great formal confidence, the book might seem too ponderous. Some readers will still find it overly talky, as the poems lack specific settings and on occasion rely on pointedly generic details. This is deliberate, an attempt to engage the losses we entail as members of a corrupted dominant culture. It's fitting that a poem titled 'Late Empire' features 'a bird that/ could as easily be a sparrow hawk/ / any other falcon.' The fact of such daily indifference is frightening, yet the strength of the Washington University professor's poetry makes its statement both necessary and sustaining."—Jenny Mueller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Speak Low is a pitch perfect title for Carl Phillips' twelfth book, at once equaniminous and unsettling, personal and universal. Here is a poet who listens to 'the silences . . . of intimacy . . . risks . . . the dead' and can tell us what silence says and how it sounds. Phillips plumbs the powerhouse subjects: fate, ambition, love and death. Deliberation becomes a current he leads us down, suspended within a concordant slurry of images, desires and emotions. In a restrained tone he paints dazzling passages: 'The waves/sheathe the rock's face with departure's pattern—then the pattern goes too.' The back and forth of patterns are parsed to great effect throughout as are Deleuzian theories about repetition. The author convincingly reads human nature into the physical world. Willow trees become actors, 'waving as if they could change destiny.' The author wants to believe and examines belief, enlisting natural counterparts with intense effect, 'like when a raven unfolds / its blackery to its fullest span.' He writes about spaces in the in between. 'Between everything we know we should do, and all the rest.' 'Between recklessness and detachment.' 'Between grand events.' 'Between fetish and perverse sorrow.' Between the 'not yet broken and the brokenness after, the distilled silence . . . inside that.' Ever on the verge, before the waterfall, Phillips follows the course with 'Sterling' refinement and offers the possibility of a resignation that will never be resigned. 'Exaggerated grace' pours through these exceptional poems. In his cool fusion of opposites, Phillips grasps the unattainable."—Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Brooklyn Rail
"This 10th book from the prolific Phillips is a quiet yet wounded reflection on Phillips' signature subjects: relationships, distances, identity, and damage. Phillips' remarkable ability to be clear yet illusive, as well as his dizzying syntax, are ever- present as the poems coil into places of confusion: 'Oh, sometimes it is as if desire had been given form, and/ acreage, and I'd been left for lost there. Amazement grips me,// I grip it back.' Rendering visceral moments with surprising leisure, 'like blood with a drawl to it,' Phillips searches slowly but relentlessly for answers to unanswerable questions: 'who's to say what will not be useful?' . . . this collection is more evidence that Phillips is making good on his offer to 'show you what it looks like/ when surrender, and an instinct not to, run side by side.'"—Publishers Weekly