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In ‘Then the War,’ Carl Phillips asks us to try a little tenderness

Poet Carl Phillips also teaches at Washington University.
Reston Allen
Poet Carl Phillips also teaches at Washington University.

Carl Phillips had no idea Europe would be plunged into its ugliest war in decades when he prepared his new poetry collection for publication. But when you release a book titled “Then the War” on the very day that one sovereign power invades another, well, you get used to people asking about it.

“People wonder if there's any resonance,” Phillips acknowledged on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But that's not the kind of war I mean in the poem.” Then he corrected himself, continuing, “It's actual war that's meant, but I was more interested in the relationship between violence and tenderness, I suppose.”

Indeed, the poems in “Then the War” offer a defense of the power of love even in the middle of crisis. One of his new poems, “Fixed Shadow, Moving Water,” ends by suggesting, “But if we make of tenderness a countervailing force, the two of us — If we can make, from tenderness — a revolution —”

Listen to Carl Phillips on St. Louis on the Air

“The poem sort of ends mid-sentence, because it’s a big ‘if,’” Phillips explained. “‘If’ we can do this.”

In the title poem, the contrast is between the life the poet envisions with a partner and the “mounted police” exerting rigid order over what the reader imagines might be a battlefield. In the end, the lovers turn to each other (“they closed their eyes/if gently, hard to say how gently”) and turn their back on the bigger world: “Then the war was nothing that still bewildered them, if it ever had.”

Phillips said the image in his mind was not a battlefield, but the grounds in Forest Park that are home to St. Louis’ Mounted Patrol Unit. A longtime professor of creative writing at Washington University, he said he frequently gets ideas or phrases for poems while walking his dog. The horse stables on the eastern edge of the park are a favorite spot.

“I love watching them bring the horses out,” he said. “So that entered here. I hadn't been planning to have ‘war’ in this at all — but having thought about the scene of tenderness and making a home with someone, and then thinking, ‘But it could easily be disrupted.’”

As a Black man living in St. Louis, Phillips said he has wondered about his interactions with police. He’s been pulled over a few times — twice, he said, because the police wanted to make sure the car he was driving was his. “As soon as I gave them my Wash U ID, it was fine,” he said. “They said: ‘Oh, no problem. Sorry to disturb you. We just have to be vigilant.’”

After the deaths of Michael Brown and George Floyd, he finds himself more aware of the need to be defensive — “to not have anything lying around that even looks like it could be problematic.” In the words of the poem, the idyll can so easily be disrupted.

Phillips said he is planning to retire from Washington University in another two years, and that will mean leaving St. Louis for Massachusetts, which he has long considered home after a peripatetic childhood as a military brat.

“I have loved it here,” he said of St. Louis. “And still do, and I love the work at the university. But I still, once in a while walking around here, wonder: ‘Where's the ocean? What is wrong with this place?”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.