These Indicium Tales
Both sensuous and sensual, These Indicium Tales continues Lance Phillips’s meditations on the body. Here, the indicia—markings or symbols—are birds, insects, and flowers, but rather than standing for the body, they stand with it in an exploration that refuses to romanticize nature. In this phenomenology of eros, where Phillips writes “I can’t think of a way of continuing which is not sexually charged,” no word is wasted. Though lines stutter and jam together, though syntax is disrupted and interwoven with silence, the language itself remains delicious on the tongue, even when read silently, which is precisely the sort of conundrum these Tales love to raise and leave in ambiguity.
“Lance Phillips’s poetry takes us immediately into a carnal theater where the word and its thing stagger under the weight of their attraction for each other. Thus actions which are rational and understandable in real life, like having sex and then touching your ear, take on enthralling intensity. The drama of representation is also heightened because the visual frame is a series of quickly changing keyholes; every foreshortened view has immediacy. This is not conventional poetry, in which voluptuous intentions are pursued by means of poetic rhetoric. Lance Phillips’s poetry models consciousness itself. So description won’t do; it’s too removed and slow. Rather than reconstitute, the poet enacts: ‘Desire and perception meld: moist crease, sun / Wasp, it filled his mouth.’ We are first witnesses as now, and again now, worlds interact: ‘On lips here her body in birds of the air.’ To read this book is to experience a series of transformations; in effect, to learn to read all over again.” —Paul Hoover
“Who Would Give the Bird a Lie”
Creating a surface including bed & spine The red bird is resisting
On lips here her body in birds of the air
It is very fast dermis
A tightening there The singing birds Her body in pinch and hearing
Finch from the door flies
Lying, the robins are in me
I’m not interested in representing anything
Thinking lip taut, red
Copyright © 2010 by Lance Phillips.
“How do we prove that our minds exist out in the world? Emerson wrote that ‘thought only appears in the objects it classifies’; a century of the art of compression, abstraction, and collage suggests that thought can appear, too, in the objects it conjoins. At one point in These Indicium Tales, Lance Phillips writes,
The skull is like this: *are we all alright* + heirloom rose
—a line which puts the inherited world and its questions right back in our heads. Phillips’ poetry is nearsighted and hungry to mingle, collapse backward, perform. The book’s recurring images—nipple, wasp, daffodil, cardinal, stream of urine—seem to hover right in front of the poet’s nose, provoking questions that pop in and then vanish: ‘Does one make a body by refusing all else.’ Written in sparse, open sequences, the poems of These Indicium Tales foreshorten perception. As they do, they suggest an active, undistracted sort of thought:
Knuckle come off cardinal against the brick
Names one cannot help converting to a physical pressures: Lodged finger
Botch heel of one’s hand one has descriptive notation Botch wasp Flames
The book is a splendid example of form containing argument. Phillips carefully scores his white space and capitalization to keep up a tense dance among his images: ‘One armAs a matter of dissonanceThe pansies’ purplish one wearies ofSent looking.” The things of the world want, above all, to be closer. ‘Intensely held thought amid fingers engulfing apple.’” —Jay Thompson in The Kenyon Review Online
My first memory is that of crushing a scorpion, accidentally, under my bare feet in Las Vegas; I was two or three years old. My second memory is that of a stray cat slinking through our door, open against the Texas heat, leaping to the counter and lapping at a dish of very soft butter; I guess I was three or four in Del Rio.
I was born on an American military base in Stuttgart, Germany, and grew up in Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. My parents divorced when I was around five years old. After the divorce I didn’t see my father again for over twenty-five years; for about eight of those years I thought he was dead. He re-entered my life in 2001 then died in 2007.
I dislike classrooms and requirements. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) I’d have never made it to university—it had never occurred to me as something I should do. Still, I ended up at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as a psychology major—that is, until I read The Stranger for a required literature class. After that I quickly became an English major.
I came to writing very quickly. In the space of about a year I went from dabbling to cramming summer school credit hours in so I could attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall, to my great surprise. I guess what I was reading in that space of time drew me in, made the idea of writing palpable, attractive and seem important. I wasn’t much of a reader, aside from a brief infatuation with Chaucer in 12th grade English, until I became something of a writer and then I read everything I could. But what sticks in my mind are the following: Emily Dickinson, some Whitman, Emily and Branwell Brontë, T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land in particular) and Jon Anderson. Also a couple of anthologies: The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry and the 1990 edition of The Best American Poetry (editor Jorie Graham), which introduced me to writers like Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Brenda Hillman, Fanny Howe, Laura Moriarty, Alice Notley, Michael Palmer, Joan Retallack, Donald Revell and Gustaf Sobin. Finally, an experience with a wonderful friend and teacher put the icing on the cake. Our class met at his house for an end-of-semester class/party and were sitting on the floor passing around a box of Capt’n Crunch while he read to us from the new (this would have been I guess winter 1991) APR. It was a section from Susan Howe’s Singularities. I was 21 and utterly hooked.
What was important about my education was contact with a specific person or group. At UNC–Charlotte it was with Christopher Davis, the first person to take me seriously as a writer and to introduce me to contemporary writing. At Iowa it was with Donald Revell in my last semester, but more importantly it was with a small group of writers to whom I feel very close still and from whom I’ve learned immeasurable things: Catherine Wagner, Martin Corless-Smith and Matthew Rohrer.
The writer who has remained a constant for me is Nietzsche. Other influences on me which haven’t waxed and waned much over the years are, strangely, most often painters. These are: the anonymous iconographers of medieval illuminated texts, Francis Bacon (I can still remember the day he died when I was an undergraduate and that Queen Elizabeth referred to him as that man who paints those awful pictures), Cezanne, Anselm Keiffer, Agnes Martin, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp (a heavy influence), Jasper Johns and Jim Dine (and others who I’m probably forgetting).
Other writers who are either always popping up or just about to or haven’t in a long time are: Eliot (at first The Waste Land, but more and more “Four Quartets”), Jon Anderson, Susan Howe (particularly, Singularities), Fanny Howe (beginning with The Vineyard and Saving History), Creeley, Olson (and behind him Henri Corbin), Anonymous middle English lyrics, Zukofsky, Oppen, Williams’ Kora in Hell, Meister Eckhardt, Thomas J.J. Altizer, John Dominic Crossan (his great book on parable), Celan, Hölderlin, Artaud, Roger Giroux, Deleuze, Martin Buber, Levinas, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer (especially Notes For Echo Lake), Samuel Beckett (later work), Guy Davenport, John Cage, various writings on Zen, Thoreau, Barthes, Bataille, Pound and Stein. I’m sure there are lots of others but these are the ones to which I return.
Other things, let’s see: both my parents are nurses and I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to the body itself as landscape and am interested in its terminology and what constitutes it. It’s possible to see images of the body in every conceivable position and eventuality with a few keystrokes. All this adds up to, at least in my mind, thinking of the body not as the conventional vessel it’s taken to be but as part of the process, part of what happens, the results of which are occurrences like Soul (pluralized, and an event rather than an object) and Self (disembodied, also an event).
1. I think of all my writing to be of a piece
2. I trust the text entirely. I know that it’s much smarter than I could ever be, so in that way it’s organic; it moves along mutating itself.
3. I like the idea of letting a word stand on its own in a text regardless of its source.
4. Any musicality in my writing is accidental; basically I think of the text as something to read on the page and not really spoken.
5. I’m much more interested in seeing what kinds of textures a text can sustain than in ideas of voice, narrative or any other form of drama for that matter.
6. “Scale expanded, and turned continuous,” says Edward O. Wilson in describing evolution. I suppose this is as good a place as any to begin; it covers the bases of my notion of writing.
7. I like that scale gets concision riled up.