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Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The Revenge of Unfinished Modernism

[By Jerry W. Ward]

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.