The Whole Story

By Dan Giancola
Philip Schultz Monica Banks

Philip Schultz
W.W. Norton, $26.95

In his latest collection of new poems, Philip Schultz explores the existential quagmire so many 21st-century inhabitants find themselves struggling to rationalize their continued existence within. Mr. Schultz’s “Luxury” is imbued with sadness and steeped in loss. In an increasingly godless world characterized by greed, suffering, incompetence, illness, and decreasing life spans, how can we continue to thrive? The poet seems to suggest that happiness is simply another human illusion, one we may need to reconcile using as a barometer of contentedness.

Now in his 70s, Mr. Schultz in this collection appears to move away from writing poems from the perspectives of various personas — as he does in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Failure” — to mine the events of his own life in true confessional style. The poems contain reminiscences of his father, trips to visit Hemingway’s houses in Cuba and Idaho, mention of his wife (the sculptor Monica Banks, one of whose porcelain cake sculptures adorns the book’s jacket) and two sons, and a poem on a visit to the grave of the East Hampton poet Robert Long, among other autobiographical details. 

This shift from imaginative to confessional expressions takes nothing away from the poems’ artfulness; readers of poetry will find themselves in the very capable hands of a truly fine poet. The collection is littered with profundities, arresting oxymorons (“the loquacious silence of the dunes”) and paradoxes, and rich imagery and metaphors. Mr. Schultz’s vocabulary balletically traverses the boundary between the hierarchical and demotic. He has managed to create tension between tone and form in this collection that he accurately describes in “At the 9/11 Memorial”: “This is a dour, elegant place, / where the essential and excruciating / are at an impossible impasse.”

“Luxury” consists of 20 lyric poems and the long, 41-page title poem, a tour de force in four parts. The first 20 poems cover a bevy of subjects, from meditations on aging (“Paraphernalia” and “At the Manhattan Social Security Office”) to childhood memories (“The Westerns” and “What to Be Afraid Of”) to poems contemplating events of social significance (“The Women’s March,” “At the 9/11 Memorial,” and “IGA”). 

But the most profoundly affecting of this first group of poems is the belated elegy to Robert Long, “Welcome to the Springs,” which begins with the epigraph from Charles Baudelaire that appears on Long’s gravestone: “The dispersion and reconstitution of the self. That’s the whole story.”

What makes this particular poem so effective is its range. Mr. Schultz moves effortlessly among all of the concerns dealt with in the book’s first section, which this poem concludes, from social concerns to art to family to details of Long’s life, blending observations in a poem that is truly moving. Stylistically, all of the first 20 poems in this collection end with a bang; poetic closure may be Mr. Schultz’s strong suit, and this poem is no exception. Here are its final 10 lines:

In any case, it’s March, warm and wet and windy,
and this is where I live, here, where everything
lives in the eye and ear, and a silky frenzy
steeps the wetlands in testimony, in praise,
where the mating calls of osprey ricochet
between the loquacious silence of the dunes
and the cleansing sweep of moonlight,
where the souls of the dispersed dead pass,
making and remaking their silhouettes
one luminous, lost imagination at a time.

Note the lovely oxymoron of “silky frenzy,” the unobtrusive but aurally pleasing alliteration at the end of lines one and 10, and the final image that desperately tries to ascribe meaning to a life after death. The “luminous, lost imagination” may belong to Mr. Schultz himself, merging with “the souls of the dispersed dead,” linking him to Long and both of them to august poetic tradition. It’s a note of hope that might buoy readers who find themselves inhabiting the same disconcerting, meaningless world as the poet.

The title poem, “Luxury,” is a work of another order. It’s a gorgeously hopeless, complex meditation upon suicide as a release from a world of existential absurdity. Indeed, most of the people the poem concerns itself with were suicides — Hemingway, Paul Celan, a jazz pianist designated as R, and the poet’s father, whom Mr. Schultz considers having worked himself to death. The poet’s father may remind readers of Willy Loman, another literary suicide, when Mr. Schultz writes that he “was tired / of suffering the illusion of success, / the sorrow of impotence.”

Albert Camus and his work “The Myth of Sisyphus” figure as an essential allusion in the poem along with other mythological references. For instance, a guide on Mr. Schultz’s trip to Cuba is named Osiris, putting readers in mind of the Egyptian myth of death and resurrection; he is the poet’s optimist, believing that “people will come / from as far as Santiago / to taste the gladness / of his strawberry ice cream.” Mr. Schultz is accompanied by his dog, Penelope, an allusion, of course, to the wife of Odysseus, who waits patiently if somewhat absurdly at her loom, staving off suitors as she waits for the uncertain return of her husband from the Trojan War. 

Mr. Schultz weaves these allusions and his memories into a poem constructed of many short lines frequently enjambed, which speeds the poem down the page, carrying this amazed reader along with it. He handles all the threads in his tapestry expertly, vacillating between myths and suicides and his own emotional reactions to these suicides.

Did I write earlier that the poem is “hopeless”? Perhaps not so much, after all. It’s the creation of art, the poem seems to subtextually claim, that constitutes the “revolt” against life’s absurdities for which Camus, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” calls. Somehow, in contemplating his existential conundrum, Mr. Schultz uses the considerable power of his art to paradoxically help himself — and the rest of us — rise above the absurdity of existence. 

This collection is “dour,” to be sure, but also terribly beautiful, as some may construe certain funerary rituals. “Luxury” is the work of a mature poet at the top of his game. If you have ever pondered the meaning and purpose of your life, read this book. It may provide you with all you need to rise above pain and despondency — “permission to live.”

Dan Giancola teaches English at Suffolk Community College. His collections of poems include “Songs From the Army of Working Stiffs” and “Part Mirth, Part Murder.”

Philip Schultz is the founder and director of the Writers Studio. He lives in East Hampton.