“No matter where he goes, Phillips’ language is hauntingly astute, and the reality he conjures is multi-layered.” ―The Washington Post
“Dazzling, totally original combinations of language and form, geography and autobiography, history, myth, and religion.” —Commonweal
“The ground Phillips treads is a middle ground—between spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, here and gone. His images are evanescent, twilit, smoke-obscured.” —New York Times
Recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim fellowship for poetry, Rowan Ricardo Philips is widely regarded as one of the most exciting young American poets working today. He is the author of two poetry collections published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Heaven (2015) and The Ground: Poems (2013). Heaven was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and the 2016 PEN Open Book Award as well as shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. Phillips also won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Heaven in recognition of contributions to understanding racism and cultural diversity. Upon publication of The Ground, Phillips received the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry.
Drawing comparisons to Wallace Stephens, and Hart Crane, reviewer John Poch wrote, “It most often seems to me that English is not a particularly beautiful language, but Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s poetry argues eloquently against that. His ear for the language, sound and syntax, is clowningly playful while serious, repetitive while new, grounded in the city as well as a sheep meadow though highly philosophical and airy as a snow angel. I think he is one of the best young poets I’ve read in years.” Invoking another great American poet, The PEN Award judges commented, “Rowan Ricardo Phillips can be sweetly Whitmanesque in his poems, or gravely meditative, or lushly lyrical. In other words, he is a poet capable of voices—plural.” Noted author Teju Cole calls Phillips simply, “the future of American poetry.”
Phillips’ poetry and writing has appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, Granta, and The Paris Review. He is a contributing writer for Artforum Magazine and has written extensively online about soccer for The New Republic and The Paris Review, where he also contributes a column on basketball. In addition to his work in the field of poetry, Phillips writes literary criticism, art criticism, literary sports writing, and non-fiction. The author of the influential critical study of poetry When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, Phillips is also the translator of Salvador Espriu’s story collection Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth as well as numerous other works from Catalan, Spanish, and Italian.
Born in New York City in 1974 Phillips earned his BA at Swarthmore College and his PhD at Brown University. He has taught at Stony Brook, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia. A Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, he divides his time between New York City and Barcelona.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is recipient of a 2015 Guggenhiem Fellowship. He is the author of Heaven, which was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award, and The Ground: Poems, for which he received a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and the 2013 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Poetry. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Granta, and many other publications, and he has written about soccer and basketball for The Paris Review. The author of the influential critical volume When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, Philips is also the translator of Salvador Espriu’s story collection Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth as well as numerous other works from Catalan, Spanish, and Italian.
HEAVEN (Poetry, 2015)
“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 Illiad, 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 touché”—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.
THE GROUND: POEMS (Poetry, 2013)
“From New York in the often surreal aftermath of 9/11, to the deep underworlds of ancient mythology, to the trans-continental heritage and childhood of Phillips himself, these are poems with a restless agility that make the terrain beneath your feet more mysterious.” — Granta
A poignant and terse vision of New York City unfolds in Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s debut book of poetry. A work of rare beauty and grace, The Ground is an entire world, drawn and revealed through contemplation of the post-9/11 landscape. With musicality and precision of thought, Phillips’s poems limn the troubadour’s journey in an increasingly surreal modern world (“I plugged my poem into a manhole cover / That flamed into the first guitar”). The origin of mankind, the origin of the self, the self’s development in the sensuous world, and—in both a literal and a figurative sense—the end of all things sing through Phillips’s supple and idiosyncratic poems. The poet’s subtle formal sophistication—somewhere between flair and restraint—and sense of lyric possibility bring together the hard glint of the contemporary world and the eroded permanence of the archaic one through remixes, underground sessions, Spenserian stanzas, myths, and revamped translations. These are poems of fiery intelligence, inescapable music, and metaphysical splendor that concern themselves with lived life and the life of the imagination—both equally vivid and true—as they lay the framework for Phillips’s meditations on our connection to and estrangement from the natural world.
WHEN BLACKNESS RHYMES WITH BLACKNESS (Criticism, 2010)
In When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, Rowan Ricardo Phillips pushes African American poetry to its limits by unraveling “our desire to think of African American poetry as African American poetry.” Phillips reads African American poetry as inherently allegorical and thus “a successful shorthand for the survival of a poetry but unsuccessful shorthand for the sustenance of its poems.” Arguing in favor of the “counterintuitive imagination,” Phillips demonstrates how these poems tend to refuse their logical insertion into a larger vision and instead dwell indefinitely at the crux between poetry and race, “where, when blackness rhymes with blackness, it is left for us to determine whether this juxtaposition contains a vital difference or is just mere repetition.”
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Alone in Woody Creek, Colorado,
I fell asleep reading Measure for Measure,
Right at the part where the Duke delivers
His Old Testament decision of haste
Paying for haste, and leisure answering
Leisure, like quitting like, and (wait for it)
Measure for measure. I saw it performed
Once, in Stratford; I was maybe twenty.
I only remembered the “measure still
For measure” part, until now. It stuck
With me. But the rest of it was wiped clean
From my memory; all of Stratford, too.
Still, the way the actor leaned on that half
Line, “measure still for measure,” as though it
Were the measure of his self, measure still
For measure, all these years, I remembered
Being the heart of the play, its great gist;
But I forgot it was a death sentence.
Whether Angelo deserved such a fate,
Or Isabella’s ability to
Rise above the mire doesn’t matter:
Death, not beauty, woke me.
My neck aches.
All of Shakespeare feels like lead on my chest,
Not for death, let’s face it, death awaits us,
Usually with less prescient language,
But death measures us with a noun’s contempt
For our imagination, being death
But not dying, making do, like when I
Turn from the Bard, look outside and behold
A herd of a hundred elk, surviving
The snow as they know how—being elk.
An hour ago they were in the hills,
But now they graze a mere five feet away,
Their world othered by these austere windows;
The massive seven-pointer, chin held high
To prevent his thick neck from crashing down,
Hoofs the snow and starts towards me, but then turns
To compass the valley between his horns.
We’d cut school like knives through butter, the three
Of us—Peter, Stephen and I—to play
Just about all the music we knew,
Which meant that from nine in the morning till
Steve’s parents, the ever-patient Murtaughs,
Would get home from work, I played guitar,
Peter played bass, and Steve (who’d end
Up becoming a guitarist by trade
When we went separate ways, to separate
Schools, in separate states) Steve at this point
Played the drums. We dreamed of power trios
And powered our way through song after song,
Including ones Steve and I wrote—like
“Hey, Regina” and the lamentably-
Titled “String Her Up.” Sometimes we tried out
Some Yes, a long “Hey Joe,” the stereo phaser
Was my signature sound, and I’d bend in
And out of notes, imply arpeggios
Only to solo over them, tapped, frowned
Through anything in a major key, felt
My way home on Steve’s map of snares, Pete’s rope.
We’d play an entire Zeppelin album,
Usually the first or second, then stray
By chance into the longer, later songs
Like bees that float down and drown in a pool.
We’d break for lunch and then get back at it
As though we had a gig to get ready for,
Or a demo to cut, the cassette deck
Rolling its eyes as it whirred round and round.
Peter, as is the nature of bassists,
Held the tunes together and kept things light.
Years later, I assumed he was dead.
My telecaster glares at me at night now
From inside the hard case by my bed—
And the calluses on my fingertips
Have long since softened. The six-minute solos
At some point became poems it took two months
Minimum to make seem seamless. Steve
In the meantime thrived in the Triangle,
Became Stevie, married Emily; Pete
I know less about. He posts on Facebook
Cheerfully about the Light, the Great Light
That glows in all of us, sends the occasional
White dove in the occasional shared shot,
A sun resting on a cloud like a pearl
In its mooted grey shell. Nostalgia courts
Me. I’m nearing forty, we were boys—
And I should let us be. But nostalgia
Spreads quickly through the ashes of our youth,
Making ferned fires out of blue beliefs.
When the dark would come, we’d show each other
Our blisters, the painful white whorls peeling,
Our red palms upwards, outstretched and unread.
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