ON ELEGY FOR A BROKEN MACHINE BY PATRICK PHILLIPS
REVIEW BY DANIEL PEÑA
As the title suggests, Patrick Phillips’ newest collection Elegy for a Broken Machine (Knopf, 2015) is, indeed, a series of elegies for broken machines—machines being used in the most cosmopolitan, de-centered sense of the word. In this collection, Phillips uses the conept of machine to connect the disparate elements of our lives (organic and inorganic) in unlikely ways, portraying our very lives as mechanical as the things we own or the things that surround us.
The collection opens with its title poem, the first couplet reading, “My father was trying/ to fix something.” Within these lines, the parameters of Elegy for a Broken Machine are already set, even before Phillips launches into the next stanza—“and I sat there just watching, like I used to, whenever something//went wrong.” This opening, in so many ways, serves as the launching point into the rest of Elegy For a Broken Machine, Phillips’ third collection and rumination on what his contemporary, Jeet Thayil, might call planned obsolescence: the planning of how and when (never why—that much is assumed) things break—machines, relationships, people, our own bodies.
To Phillips, 21st century memento mori is a 21st century rethinking of the boundaries of self. Through his poems, Phillips shows us that boundaries are as long or short as memory, as profound or shallow as our interrelationships. It seems Phillips is just as likely to see himself in his children—which he explores in poems such “Barbershop”—as he is to see himself in the glassy photo of a strange woman hanging on a staircase wall in “Elegy at the Trinity Pub.” As the collection moves, Phillips deftly illustrates the interworking of metal, flesh, grease, bone, and memory to form our lives, our interrelationships, our hopes, and our disappointments, which underwrite the day-to-day.
The arc of Elegy for a Broken Machine is inlaid in the boundaries of this haunting memento mori. The collection is broken down into three parts. The first section explores the perils of middle age, while the second thematically explores events of death, dying, and memory in Phillips’ childhood. The third is primarily rooted in Phillips’ reckoning with his own mortality, a thread that runs throughout the book and ties the collection together with the poems, “Variations on a Text by Donald Justice,” and “Will.” The former ruminates on Phillips’ death, but also his position in the genealogy of poetry—heir to Donald Justice, the renowned writer of elegies, but also heir (by proxy) to the early 20th century Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo who, like Justice, was a master in the formalist tradition, and who inspired Justice’s own poem, “Variations on a Text by Vallejo.”
Phillip’s collection is more than just slightly in conversation with Vallejo’s memento mori, “Black Stone Over a White Stone,” from his posthumous collection, Poemas Humanos. Vallejo’s poem informs the first couplet of Phillips’ title poem, “Elegy for a Broken Machine”; Vallejo writes in the second stanza of “Black Stone Over a White Stone”:
“It will be Thursday, because today, Thursday, as I prose
these lines, I've put on my humeri in a bad mood,
and, today like never before, I've turned back,
with all of my road, to see myself alone.”
The second line riffs on humeri as a double entendre—Humeri can either be read as the plural of humerus, which is a bone in the upper forearm, or as a disposition related to the end of that line, “...bad mood.”—though in either case it’s quite clear that the image focuses on three things: mechanism, isolation, and the self.
When reading the beginning of Phillips’ opening poem, I can’t help but think of Vallejo’s image of a skeleton trying to put itself back together. Trying just as Phillips’ father tries, in vain, to fix the unnamed machine:
“…I kept asking where he’d been.
Until he put down a wrench
And said Listen:
dying’s just something
that happens sometimes.
where that kind of dream comes from?
Why some things
Vanish, and some
just keep going on forever.” (Elegy for a Broken Machine, pg 3).
It’s in these lines that death becomes an emotionally and intellectually layered concept rooted in the boundaries of Phillips’ life.
What’s inferred through the poem is that something has died—maybe an animal, or a pet. But the machine that’s dead in front of Phillips’ father becomes a teaching tool, a mechanical object that’s used to explain the organic process of death, but also the way we die—piece by piece. Always a sliver of hope, of repair, until life eventually comes to an end. Everything fallen apart. And then that’s it.
It’s in this unraveling—piece by piece, memory by memory—that Phillips guides us on a very personal and emotionally complex tour of death. The magic of the collection is in the commonplace memories Phillips draws, the images so familiar, that they could be drawn from our own lives.
Phillips’ best poems keep the reader close to the confessional contract we buy into once we commit to the collection’s world. We read each poem as another sliver of the narrative Phillips engagingly patches together.
Elegy For a Broken Machine, like its premise, is itself an interplay between mechanics, memory, and the perpetual memento mori that drives the everyday. The poems do something in this collection that few other poems can do—they talk to each other, but they also talk to you. They haunt you. The uncanny nature of the images in the poems draw on Phillips’ memories as much as they draw draw on own own—those we have already and those we will come to have, soon enough. It’s in this way that Phillips’ poetry is also prophetic. They remind us that we’re more alike than different, the tradition of the memento mori driving that concept home—nobody gets out of this alive.
Patrick Phillips is the author of two poetry collections, Boy and Chattahoochee, which won the 2005 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His honors include both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Discovery / The Nation Prize from the 92nd Street Y, and the Translation Prize of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University.
Elegy for a Broken Machine
by Patrick Phillips
$26.00 [hardcover, ISBN: 9780385353755]
Daniel Peña is a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar based in Mexico City. He graduated from the MFA program at Cornell University, and is at work on his first book. His writing can be found in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Huizache, Callaloo, and The Rumpus, among other outlets. He's originally from Austin, Texas.
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