Book Review of Compass by Luc Phinney

Luc Phinney has burst onto and worked his way into the upper echelon of contemporary American poetry.


Review by Cameron Conaway

By Luc Phinney
Truman State University Press
100 East Normal Avenue
Kirksville, MO 63501-4221
ISBN 978-1-61248-096-1
80pp., $18.00

With Compass, a debut collection awarded the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State University Press, Luc Phinney has burst onto and worked his way into the upper echelon of contemporary American poetry. "Worked" being the key word. Compass is a collection that pays homage to the scaffolding, a carefully constructed exploration into the life space of work that breathes before things are as we see them.

The work is divided into three sections, but the dividers are porous in such a way that the reader may feel their distinctiveness yet find hints of each section in all sections. Upon a second read it occurred to me that this division couldn't be any other way.

Rooted in the physical world of labor, Part 1: The Work of the Hands blends the energy of our bodies, including at the cellular level, with the simultaneous grit and privileges of the modern world. Here's an excerpt from a poem titled "After College":

Riding my bike to work in the dark before cars
flood the streets with their headlights,
I think a lot on molecules, cells
and vibration, what it is to be warm,
and what the nature is, of Being, in a freezing
universe, it's four and I'm the first one in.

The investigation into inter work extends beyond the body and into the world around it--those layers of invisible labor in the dirt or in the walls or in the shiny new FILL IN THE BLANK. This excerpt from a poem titled "Thrownness" is one example of such deconstruction:

Pressing the clay against
my hands, and yet I've never

brought the casing off,
or looked inside, the see if cord
and motor come together

in a clip, a wire-nut, some form
of grammar, the wheel spins,
allowing me to work within

the grammar of the form.

Compass continues capturing the often unnoticed in Part 2: The Work of the Song. It is here where we are walked into the land of love and relationship and asked as readers to pivot our pull to the surface and instead swim around in the inner machinery of our everyday gestures of caring and desire. Notice in this short excerpt from "Market Closing" how we quickly unpack parts of the inner before giving ourselves over to the moment:

...She walks on, lost in sun and brailed all over
with the cold's friction. Woman of secret skin, I am
to take the private language of your arm,
and kick through cast-off flowers. In sum:
to walk you home.

In the middle of this section we also have the birth of our narrator's son, as in this excerpt from the poem "Kairos Being Born":

Being man, I can only hold her
in this stream and rock and hum in human
confusion, lost in the cosmos
of closed eyes, of William
Kairos being born.

And this section concludes with the poem titled "Bedtime," a beautiful meditation on fatherhood that is built with tercets that alternate between the following two endings:

That's it. That's all. I have no more. I'm sorry.

I tell the boys another jungle story.

All of our makings can take place because we're part of an environment that's been made for us. We enter into this natural world in Part 3: The Work of the Echo. Here's an excerpt from a poem titled "Circuit":

In unceasing
motions, school of clouddrift,
of pollencount, of windweft
and windwarp, in
the new burl
and knot and streaming-out
of one bee's
telling of one
path, one route,
the net of hive and flower
and rotting fruit and sweet
popsicle-melt, fruit-flow,
honeydew rind, hummingbird
feeder, chorizo, pure
tomato katsup slopped
from little packets...

Not the hummingbird but the hummingbird feeder. Not pure tomato but the manufactured katsup from the manufactured packets. The linebreaks after "hummingbird" and "pure" are masterful poetic movements both in the poem and in the context of the collection. It's as though in entering the natural environment we've been granted the keys of perspective to the open our eyes to the built environment.

On the whole, making unseen matters matter drives Compass. But human drive ebbs and flows, and while the final few poems of the work take us back to the making, the final excerpt I'll quote, from the poem "Accept No Imitations," shows us how our journey is part of a continuum that includes a place we've all visited but never want to live:

I spread the newspaper out
on the roughsawn table and sit backwards
in my chair: Tight End Injures Tailbone,
Future Uncertain; Fed Declares
Smurfit-Stone Superfund Site, Moss Gains
Baby Weight, something political
always and an ad for one of those
French waters: Eviter Les Contrefaçons.
Touching the print
I can no longer feel the depth
of the type set on the page;
or perhaps it is the paper,
no longer extrusive.
It is hard to feel like anything matters.


Cameron Conaway, Executive Editor at The Good Men Project, serves on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Human Trafficking Solutions. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet (Threed Press, 2011), Bonemeal: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and Until You Make the Shore (Salmon Poetry, 2014).