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Thoughts on “Fascination”

For the month of October, the KR blog will feature posts on the poetry of Carl Phillips, this year’s recipient of The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. Specifically, we’re reading and writing about Phillips’ book Double Shadow, as well as the chapbook “Radiance Versus Ordinary Light.” I’d like to start off my postings with a few thoughts on Phillips’ poem “Fascination,” which appears in Double Shadow and was first published in this issue of the New Orleans Review (scroll down to page 11 to read “Fascination”).

The poem shocked me when I first read it, and it shocks me now, still. Like many of the poems in Double Shadow, it leans into every last punch. The first section establishes the grim sense of finite space that pervades the poem. We watch the light of an indoor candle as it crawls the walls of the room, ostensibly turning the walled structure into “a cavernousness,” but in actuality just confirming the space’s smallness and unbudging definition. The light hits the ceiling and cannot go any further, so must make the most of its new role as “a kind / of moon,” a sorry excuse for the real thing, which rises and sinks and beams outside without fetter.

But all this aside, it’s the second section, for me, that’s the really rough one to read. I have been recounting the resolution of this poem for friends this week, and two people now have winced and sucked in air right after I tell them about this fox, caught in a trap and forced to attempt gnawing off its own leg. Well, that’s not the resolution of this poem, and so I find myself in the same position as a comedian telling a joke to someone who laughs in the middle — wait, I have to say awkwardly, I’m not finished. I haven’t even gotten to the good part.

The “good part” here, of course, is not good at all. When we encounter the trapped fox, it is no longer biting at its extremities, but only because it has finally “stopped / mutilating its own body to at last get free. Has stopped trying.” Just when you thought the poem’s gut-punch ending would be the picture of an animal forced to chew its leg off, Phillips gives us something even worse: the resignation to defeat that follows the failure of that effort. Just as the candle’s light is bound by the walls of its room, the fox’s world is made painfully small by the trap, and even smaller by its own inability to sufficiently destroy its body in the name of escape. The only space left for the fox now is the low plane of death, as it “[c]onsigns the rust-colored full length of itself to the frosted ground.”

Of note here is that the fox tries to free the bulk of its body by “mutilating” a small and somewhat expendable part. That’s not a word we ordinarily equate with liberation, but in fact Phillips makes this connection again and again throughout Double Shadow. More on this in a subsequent posting…