Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike
by Emilia Phillips
Bull City Press, 2015; 33 pp
Reviewed by Brandon Amico
“A baby grand’s gutted to make a bed,” opens one section of Emilia Phillips’s chapbook-length poem. “A glove needs to be reminded it is not a hand,” starts another. Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike suggests much in speaking little. It reads not unlike a mystery, attuned to the small details, the things that are just a little bit off. And these little things together suggest at least a couple big, life-changing events for the people we see in the periphery of the world Phillips has created for this book, which, of course, I wouldn’t spoil for you here.
Objects, animals, and gestures that appear in this book repeat and double-back, shadow one another, as do the characters that weave in and out of the story, each named only in a distant, sterile manner: the archaeologist, the vagrant, the citizen, the diplomat, &c. This all adds up to a sense that the world of this small book is self-contained, complete, and completely alien to you. The verse is gorgeous and inviting—the world it lives in is decidedly not.
A child finds a tooth in the snow.
A cat spins in a dryer.
The child wonders if this is how his permanent
teeth will arrive.
The cat is found, its claws hooked in a blouse.
Adding to the eerie silence punctuated by each of these observations is the fact that things are regularly out of place—where we might look for a calm moment of respite is no longer an option, due to things being where they don’t belong (“The old riverbed, now filled with beaters”). The reader is gently, quietly, but constantly, nudged into discomfort.
Two Lincolns turn and turn but never face
one another. The chickens as if at feed peck
at sleet. Pennies gleam in a bowl
of vinegar. A kettle without water
Suffused with ice and snow, we see things shrinking, condensing in the cold, as well as wonderfully unexpected observations Phillips draws out: “cold / horns blow sharp,” which immediately follows the unsettling images of a tuba filling with snow and “facedown cheeks” that “freeze like beets.” The book is packed with moments striking in their clarity, potent in their allusions.
The mannequin crosses her arms by dropping them.
The leather boot remembers how to be skin.
The mannequin envies the photograph its light.
The boot remembers life as a dark heat inside.
As these moments build, what the reader gets is a collection (I hesitate to say list, because it’s more riveting than reading a list sounds, but in a sense that’s what this is) of clues, pieces of a puzzle that, like a real-life detective knows, might not add up to anything resembling a resolution, or closure. But they are haunting, reflective, suggestive of other moments and movements, beautiful or disturbing—often, both.
Beneath the Ice…, if nothing else (though it is a lot else), is a showcase for the power of detail in verse, how a skilled poet can tell a story without an overt narrative framework and its usual devices. Nearly every line is intensely visual, and presented in a matter-of-fact voice, and most pages contain only four lines, with ample spacing between not unlike snow. This bare white space invites the reader to color in the story from the context, with moments that are so vivid and well-executed that they cannot help but intrude, disturb, and, as wonderfully done here, insist:
A snake coils in the empty toilet.
The moon is nothing but the moon.
The telephone rings once.
The telephone rings twice.