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First Books: Adam Day on Philip White’s The Clearing

Contributing Editor  Adam Day reflects on Philip White‘s first book, The Clearing:

But the Body Went On

In the arts, feeling is always meaning – Henry James

It’s difficult to talk about Philip White’s first book, The Clearing, in evaluative terms, because when I read it I don’t mind whatever imperfections I might encounter. I simply feel invaded by the work, or rather, I feel its meaning. Given the quality of light in a room on a given night, one might think to one’s self, subjectively, analytically, that the world does itself justice. My experience of White’s work is analogous. And that is an experience I very rarely have as a reader; The Clearing does not blind my analytical mind with appeals to emotion or sensual pleasure, and yet it negates my editorial inclinations. In short, I have the experience of ‘affective attachment developing into critical thought.’

White himself seems to be aware of the threat of the injustice we do when we speak imprecisely, when he says in the first poem of the volume, “Wings”, after a sort of verse prologue: “If I say, Light fell / from your body, or, Hundreds / of leaves burst into wings, forgive me. / I want to speak to you quietly / and believe everything”. He draws attention, through capitalization, to our tendency toward hyperbole when memorializing, and incidentally, he seems to point out that if every author is as aware of him or herself as he or she ought to be, then all writing ends up eventually addressing the devices of writing, at some point. Thus, The Clearing implicitly points to the possibility that the reading experience, particularly when confronted with personal history, is always already epistemological. For the reader must always struggle with what can be known of the world of the text, thus mirroring the writer’s own experience of the slippery nature of memory, and of the impossibility of complete recall and representation; as the speaker of “The Minnows” says, “the world we know // is leaving us.” All of this further points to the ambiguous, if not incongruous, nature of the terms fiction and nonfiction: “Sometimes what I remember is itself / a memory, forged in some earlier need” (“Veil”).

The Clearing speaks to, among other things, the death of White’s first wife, as well as gesturing at the beginning of a new love, and though there is no explicit thematic, its world and sensibility evince the wholeness, if not the potential burden, of a sequence. One’s consumption of the poems is more akin to the act of hearing than reading; you forget the process, the ink on paper. There’s something private about the poems; they bear the intimacy of the solitary. It’s as though you are overhearing someone speaking to himself, or privately to another – someone who keeps bumping into the facts of things: “The sky above you is a pane so blue // the house beneath it seems childish, comical…” (“Idyll”).

The poems of The Clearing tend toward a lyrical/meditative narrative mode; these are poems that don’t sit still, and which resist closure, particularly the closure of the neat revelation. This is restless verse, characterized by a mind still figuring things out, and, thankfully, never quite getting there, as in “At Dead Horse Point”:

grief on grief, were mine. Yet, I’ve lived

to see my past before me and ask

if the eye is ground dull or ground clean

that it can lean like this into vacancy,

gorging on laceration and light.

One has the sense of a speaker who is equal to any obstacle, but who may be unaware of this. So, the speaker’s observations never feel like wisdom, but like the candid speech of an emotionally intelligent mind that has forgotten itself.

And there are actual love poems in The Clearing. I say actual because they aren’t so concerned with themselves, or their characters, as with the otherwise unnoticeable, unselfconscious grit of the everyday. So many poems of love or loss, in particular, are not about the beloved or the lost, but about the speaker’s experience of that other. These poems are interesting specifically because they seem to carry the complexity of a couple, of the other. Further, they are poems only of the speaker’s lost love, but also of new love, the loss having enriched the experience of finding love again.

But sometimes simply being

someplace is all we need, and in bare sunlight

on a wall  we sense a signature of what is

conducting us, arraying, granting us

entry, moving us from love to love. (“Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment”)

Not to mention the complexity of loss, which in life, and, thankfully, in White’s work, is personal and particular, and then not. Though loss permeates the book, it does not suffocate it, nor does emotion erase the rich impressions it generates, so that you forget over and over again that the loss being spoken about is not yours:

The dancing stopped and everyone sang

at once and when I held the cake out to him our eyes met

and in the weird light I saw my own face, how hard,

for his own reasons, he was trying to be happy. (“Vine”)

Meanwhile, references to characteristics like rage, shame, loss, or pain feel neither sentimental nor detached, but simply like reality, as in “East Lawn”:

I remember the rich incremental

dark by shovelful smothering their flaming colors

like a cloudbank slowly blotting out stars.

And as the earth fell, my heart finally failed

and I cast my eye around wildly, wanting to take

each thing in, not knowing what part would be lost

that I might struggle into this life again.

The heart does indeed fail, the eyes go desperate, the mind grasps and slips. And in the end, I find I don’t care what analysis might make of the poetry – I simply know that this is what loss feels like.

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