Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ The Ground (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2012) distinguishes itself from many of the first collections flooding the poetry market for at least two reasons: 1) Philips is remarkably modest in using his broad cultural literacy and his translator’s insights about the strengths and fragility of language qua language; 2) the ontology of The Ground is made special by the conditions of its materiality. The book has been published by one of the few remaining firms in the United States that possesses the aura of class. The virtue of the book is attested by the right people: Lucie Brock-Broido, who theorized in 1995 that a poem is a thing that wounds; Henri Cole, the poetry editor of The New Republic; Evie Shockley, a poet and critic who happens to be a Cave Canem graduate fellow. The book jacket is a sepia photograph by Nuria Royo Planas, a powerful evocation of film noir to characterize the dark psychology of post-9/11 New York City. It is obvious that grace and sophistication was involved in locating Phillips’ work in the territory of high-ground modernism.
Phillips’ book is a legitimate inhabitant of the Establishment, an ironic inhabitant. Even if Phillips signifies on the pure American pathology of New York in the stanza
Or rappers cipher deep into the night,
The gun-in-your-mouth talk of a ransomed
God, nature is a lapse in city life
from “Mappa Mundi” 23) or writes a blues poem “Grief and The Imaginary Grave, Vol. 2: Red Trillium” (34-35) to mask his interest in ecology, he renders unto the Establishment its dubious coinage. The revenge of unfinished modernism is to give the Establishment’s poetry scene precisely what it has spawned, a frantic aesthetic of uncertainty.
Phillips does not traffic in faux-blackness, the bane of a considerable body of work in African American poetry. Instead, he asserts his affinity, as Shockley suggests, with Walcott, Stevens, and Dove and his liberation from a defensive posture. In Phillips’s poems, African American elusive poetic gestures share equal space with European/Greek antiquity allusions and West Indian/African syncretic imperatives. Like the finest of our jazz musicians, Phillips raises consciousness by demanding that his soundings be accorded passionate attention. Discerning readers will grasp the oppositional power of The Ground to the lethal assumptions of the post-human. Perhaps in being at one with his culture Phillips helps us to save African American altruistic sensibility from evaporation in the colorblind void/avoidance of life.