ON “THE GROUND” BY ROWAN RICARDO PHILLIPS

As a whole, The Ground paints New York with its imagery and plays it like a sax with its lyric. New York is here an epic city discussed in between references to epic poems written by an epic author. “Poetry is music when the music is over,” he said in our [Wesleyan’s] Q&A, and we can hear the trailing notes of blues and jazz in poems like “OVER THE COUNTRIES OF KINGS AND QUEENS CAME THE SECOND IDEA.” The point of entry for some poems can be found elsewhere in the book, like easter eggs in movies.

References to Nov. 11th are much more easily discernible after reading “EMBRACE THE NIGHT AND GET THEE GONE,” for example. He plays with form, flowing from sestinas to sonnet form to aubades gracefully. That is not to say that The Ground is an easily palatable book. Poems meditating on the start of lyric poetry found in Orpheus are aching off the page, “split and spun…like the dots of an ellipsis” from one another. “THE GREENNESS OF THE GROUND” is a challenge and/or a prayer, depending on whom you ask. Rowan Ricardo Phillips can easily be called a legend, and legends live to make you uncomfortable. They also live to tell their stories, and to be googled, and to be accept the names they’ve been given—all of which he does in this collection of glorious words.

CLOSE READING: “BIRD OF FIRE”
Copy of poem here.

Sestinas as a poetic style are a constant working and reworking of wordplay that highlights the variable nature of a simple image, feeling, phenomenon, etc. Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ fixation with repetition makes his use of the sestina style exquisitely intricate—and when viewing his poem BIRD OF FIRE through the lens of his essay when “blackness rhymes with blackness,” it is clear that he is being purposefully duplicitous. Sestinas work with repeating words, implying that something can look the same a moment later and be something totally different (with its past still chasing at its heels). When applied to a sestina, this created a string of meanings that soon becomes a web of reference to itself. The word sestina comes from the Latin sextus, or “sixth,” and has six unrhymed stanzas of six lines each. The words at the ends of the first stanza’s lines reoccur throughout the poem, so that each stanza has the same words at the end of the six lines in a variation of orders. The tercet at the conclusion has two to a line of these six words. However, whilst the poem’s six linchpins do not rhyme with one another, they rhyme with themselves in the same way that “blackness rhymes with blackness.” It’s a rejection of closure; the word refuses to rest in one meaning or one image.

In BIRD OF FIRE, specifically, the words change themselves constantly to rhyme with one another rather than just mirroring an earlier manifestation. They morph between pronunciations, variations, spellings, and expressions. For example, just the word die comes up as “melody… ‘to die’?… I will die…dream and real from live and die… amorphous die… dove to die…” and lastly, “didn’t.” It is sound, question, reality, nebulous, action, and then (arguably) just not. In this way, Phillips and the words themselves are rejecting closure, constantly forcing the door open. The words themselves breathe, live and die, and are reborn with each statement, to the point where it can almost not be called a repetition because there is nothing being restated—the past is being referenced, but something new is being said. Nothing is repeating itself; the word is not history but rather is making strings like an elaborate crime scene map that brings more questions than answers. The deployment of this disjointed and disassociated wordplay also gives the words and the will to the reader; it is a gift from Phillips, one that says “Here, choose.” But it is also giving us the option to choose not to choose, to deploy the inclusive disjunction that Phillips discusses in “blackness rhymes with blackness.”

Enjambment is also an important ploy to change the meaning of a sestina, and Phillips deploys it constantly in “BIRD OF FIRE. Enjambment as a device says more than the words may be able to and acts as a springboard for multiple realities to exist for the words at once. The process of enjambment—which is the incomplete syntax at the end of a line—is a forceful bringing together and a sticky pulling apart. The sestina is a massive practice of enjambment such as this. Where rhyming a word with itself is seeing the same words repeated are only the same species, not the same beings, enjambment is a series of snapshots that strung together make one story but when broken down tell their own singular tale. It’s a constant pausing of what will happen next, so that the reader can process multiplicity of meanings that can exist in that paused space. The spot of enjambment is a spot that allows the imagination of a future, just as the reiteration of a word allows for an imaginative choosing of meanings. In “BIRD OF FIRE,” the first stanza asks the question in the second line: “How could it [the moon] live,” which is a question in itself. It then continues, “at the same time as the sun.” There are now two questions hanging in the air, both arguably as immense and important as the other. It is a refusal to exist alone.

“BIRD OF FIRE,” named after the mythological creature of rebirth the phoenix, is as much a metaphor for the poem and the word as it is for the sun. It is filled with petites morts, where none of the words or meanings or questions are laid to rest because they are invoked and added to with every repetition, while also totally changed and transformed. Poetry is not a concrete entity, and to eschew the meanings that are brought about by way of restating a word or enjambment is to never truly read the poem. Both devices allow for choice, and allow for the poem to deny you any assurance that you’ve made the right (or wrong) one. It is both a straddling and a pushing apart, as Eve Sedwick has mentioned in essays on the device. Every word/every reiteration/every separate meaning should be cradled, and then mulled over in the mouth and mind to understand just what the word is saying no to.

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