Signaletics by Emilia Phillips
University of Akron Press, 2013; 72 pp
Reviewed by Dillon J. Welch
In Emilia Phillips’ Signaletics, the collision of antiquity and modern poetry arrests the reader in an uneasy haze, not quite here or now, not quite there, but unstuck in peculiarity. Her poems find themselves in all sorts of unsettling situations, many things happening and happening relentlessly, much like life and its seemingly endless circumference. In the opening poem alone (“Subject in the Position of the Soldier with No Arms”), a porcelain Christ has lost a finger, limbs and joints are disassembled and reattached, and weather is not only humanized, but religiously compelled: “You must hold still. There’s a storm in the western sky. / Beneath God’s empty shoulder socket, you’re a hailstone / of nerves, the fist clenched at the end of a phantom arm.”
Some of the content, however, takes sufficient excavation—varying degrees of research—to illuminate context in imagery. In “Sublimation” (a dedication to the “Turba philosophorum,” an ancient European alchemy text dating back to 900 A.D.), Phillips carries the reader through prayer, in and out of restless sleep (“You once thought an earthquake the neighbors making / love upstairs, but the berth of the tremor was in the heart’s / ballot box, the precincts of night.”), dusts over marriage, and ends on a boy soldier realizing death as he watches, pocket revolver in hand, a hawk circling and devouring its prey. Though it is a satisfying kind of intimidation that underscores Phillips’ lines (her stanzas full with lives lived and forgotten), the images might just as easily be lost on the reader rather than appreciated due to the reader’s contextual ignorance.
Perhaps that is what is most admirable about Phillips’ collection: her ability to take the historical, the scientific and rigid, and manufacture something more human, something alive and quick-witted and breathing like a newborn emerging from a small bath. In “Cuspis,” the speaker explains, in verse, the process in which dental technicians use soap to practice crafting false teeth. Immediately following, she delights in the idea of the false becoming real:
say that to know human anatomy
one must recreate it, little
by little: porcelain tooth,
eye, artificial heart.
Though some of her lines could easily be lost to the skimming Sunday-reader, Phillips’ poems are an open archive to a fragmented past. They are one part visceral nightmare memory, one part scientific journal illuminated by candlelight, and they’ll have the more astute reader dog-earing nearly every page, ready to return again and again.