Water: Dennis Phillips

January 31, 2017



Dennis Phillips (b. 1951) is a widely anthologized Los Angeles poet whose work has been described as “experimental”, “neo-surrealistic” with a “sense of language discontinuity” inspired by modernist pursuit of discovery. 

In the poem Water, published below, he writes: “Like music there’s no way to capture water/in the markings of language.” And yet it is through these playful though intricate attempts to discern ‘a cartography’ of water by writing and reading its fluidity, its illusiveness, that we dare search through language “as the transfer of motion”. Water that spills abundantly, running away from being captured in a meaning or a measure because “the measure’s corrupted and no measure reads true”, a language that erupts in unexpected currents and undercurrents. 

This leaves the reader, the one “who swims the river between” with the sweet burden of catching the ebbs and flows of what is “high and cavitated, lonesome on the swell”, a state in which drinking, swimming through, being, and becoming water stubbornly matters.


Dennis Phillips is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, most recent are: “Navigation: Selected poems 1985 - 2010,” Seismicity Editions, Los Angeles (2011), “Sophia's Lament,” Ninja Press, Los Angeles (2012) and “Measures,” Talisman House Publishers, Greenfield, MA (2013). His novel “Hope” was published in 2007 by Green Integer (Los Angeles). From 1985 to 1988 Phillips was the director of the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice, California, a cornerstone for Los Angeles underground art scene. He teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at Otis College in Los Angeles. 




Not doors not a root of evil
not the magnet of demons 
not lyrics of a missing song.


Your face looking over my shoulder
reflected down the arcade
though I remember an invasive chill
as we raced through the terminal
but that without air around them
our eyes blurred our colors dulled.


Like music there’s no way to capture water
in the markings of language.


Sweat dries salt on skin. Dead Sea concentrations 
and here we pause as age insinuates predicates 
and simple seamanship looms heroic
or seeing her once small leave
no matter how metaphorical still
we’re talking water now 
something needs to fill the moats 
though apostasy and self-consciousness 
distract from the matter at hand.


Ubiquity is never easy.
Nor governance, nor assertion.


Music also impossible
like language
like fluids
like a drying slice of something once moist.


Where the level sought rests where the plumb resides.


Take this out later but the fair truth’s
that the measure’s corrupted and no measure reads true.


Knowing when the cistern’s full’s half the battle.


So, neo-formalists, how tell the difference between seems and is
if not by architecture?


But if by level I mean surface and by surface
the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to
and by this I mean to employ cartographers of water and ambition
what’s the calibration of equilibrium’s tools?
Where the nozzle? Where the drain?

The line—plumb or story or shroud of a ship—the lines, the transfer of motion, the

lineation of words, of seduction, the doubt-inspired rhetoric and the proof of lineage as

entrance to the game, the question of what comes first and what anyone means by


You come aglisten and the currents inform you
high and cavitated, lonesome on the swell.


You are both a figure of speech
and a voice formed propelling through the medium*
understood, in this case, to be water.


Who’s left apolishing the corner
and who’s aguessing which figures on the shore
touch the ground or stain the book cover.


Aguessing who swims the river between
and where the reason is
in making things of words. 

Raised cups, obliging nobles,
darker seasons than expected. 
Hence the call for differing astronomers 
with data separate and special
the better to push back tides.


Let’s not push under something we don’t understand,
advisors say, while the distracted can’t stop thinking 
about rhythms as ratios.


Where are the postcards, why doesn’t anyone write,
the chorus intones, while we express our darker purpose.

There’s no shift quicker or more extreme 
than the slip beneath the skin of surface, 
pool or ocean, river or lake 
except, of course, the shift we can’t know 
but may hope to.


On the banks of Styx wraiths abound. 
Nervous limbs, liminal bindings, 
shades induced to reason crowd the shore.


Morning’s quotidian experiment
finds steam and chill  
as floating heads and stroking arms
emerge from water’s fog.


But the acute address is never that engaging
never alluring enough to follow for long,
no matter how insistent the image.


Clepsydra, water clock: that’s the connection here.
Since waiting’s such a changed thing now
from this end of the scale.

Glisten of rain on concrete.
Weak winter sun barely penetrates cloud filter.
Thick layer of wet yellow mulberry leaves
covers gravel.


One day I’ll be water,
water already mostly am.


Knowing this an illusion
based on knowing this.




* Europa seduced rides isleward. Details cover her. Warm wind shrouds her arms. Currents sweep in. A Crete we can’t find still sends its missives. Her arms freed, even as the divine bovine swims out to sea, the beautiful, reillusioned warm one astride.


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