Swerving 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.
As with Phillips’s first collection, The Ground, this slim volume is full of grace and beauty. Phillips is equally fluid in summoning boyhood memories as he is in alluding to passages from Homer and Shakespeare or describing scenes of the California coast or a snow-covered landscape. Phillips understands the natural world and its creatures — birds, elk, roosters — as well as the issues and influences that drive people’s behavior: geography, a sense of fate, feeling and poetry. No matter where he goes, his language is hauntingly astute, and the reality he conjures is multi-layered.
Heaven exists as a series of displacements. Its voice inhabits various languages—English, Greek, Spanish, French, Italian—and locations: Los Angeles, the Colorado Rockies, ancient Troy, Paris, New York City. This elusiveness, this refusal of hardened categories and identities, is a poetics of resistance built into speaking, one that, like creole, blends many tongues ... it’s the backdrop—the constellation, one might say—for the structural inequalities, whether economic or racial, of the present moment, and Phillips peers to its horizons. Yet he does so in a way that keeps them expanding, never allowing poetry to clamp down ... Equally important is Phillips’s emphasis on letting the strange remain strange, letting difference remain difference, because social and political progress entails learning to speak across differences as much as similarities.
Phillips’ Heaven seems to contain everything under the sun — from allusions to Frost and Stevens ('It does not not get you quite wrong') to ODB — and yet I think I could pick one of his poems out of the sky. If, for Kafka, Heaven is the impossibility of crows, then for Phillips it is the possibility of this impossibility. This is to say that the Heaven is undogmatic yet perfectly whole.