One of The Washington Post's Best Poetry Collections of 2015
One of NPR's Best Books of 2015
Long-listed for the National Book Award in poetry
"Who the hell's heaven is this?" Rowan Ricardo Phillips offers many answers, and none at all, in Heaven, the piercing and revelatory encore to his award-winning debut, The Ground. Swerving elegantly from humor to heartbreak, from Colorado to Florida, from Dante's Paradise to Homer's Iliad, from knowledge to ignorance to awe, Phillips turns his gaze upward and outward, probing and upending notions of the beyond.
"Feeling, real feeling / with all its faulty / Architecture, is / Beyond a god's touch"—but it does not elude Phillips. Meditating on feverish boyhood, on two paintings by Chuck Close, on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, on a dead rooster by the side of the road in Ohio, on an elk grazing outside his window, his language remains eternally intoxicating, full of play, pathos, and surprise.
"The end," he writes, "like / All I've ever told you, is uncertain." Or, elsewhere: "The only way then to know a truth / Is to squint in its direction and poke." Phillips—who received a 2013 Whiting Writers' Award as well as the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award—may not be certain, but as he squints and pokes in the direction of truth, his power of perception and elegance of expression create a place where beauty and truth come together and drift apart like a planet orbiting its star. The result is a book whose lush and wounding beauty will leave its mark on readers long after they've turned the last page.
Phillips (The Ground), in his second collection, deals in illusions, highlighting the hidden wonders he finds within the world. In measured poems that echo conversations one might have in a museum, Phillips presents scenes that build to final-line revelations. Along the way, he mulls various aspects of the concept of heaven the realness of it, the mutations of it. Phillips opens in "Perpetual peace. Perpetual light," yet "it all seems graffiti." In order to investigate more deeply, he analyzes scenes from Dante and Homer, even turning to artist Chuck Close, a fellow illusionist. Close's paintings appear to be hyperrealistic portraits from far away, but when seen up close, they disintegrate into small dots and blobs of dissonant color, as if Close were painting the atoms of his subjects. In his quest to see beyond the visible into the atoms of the world, Phillips has a transformative experience in viewing one of Close's paintings. The poet also discovers that it is possible for people to find heaven in each other, and that heaven always shifts and changes; it is indefinable. Phillips is awestruck by that ambiguity, and though he doesn't see the pearly gates in his source material, he revels in the search.