Breathless Intimacy: A Review of Philip Schultz' Failure

Christy DelehantyChristy Delahanty is a former Poetry Center intern, and recent graduate in Creative Writing and Linguistics from The University of Arizona.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz is the author of several collections of poetry, including The God of Loneliness: New and Selected Poems (2010), Failure (2007), Living in the Past (2004), and The Holy Worm of Praise (2002), all from Harcourt. In addition to the Pulitzer for Failure, his many awards include Fulbright, Guggenheim, and NEA fellowships. He is the founder/director of The Writers Studio, a private school for fiction and poetry writing based in New York City with branches in Tucson, San Francisco, and Amsterdam.

Philip Schultz will be reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center on October 20th, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public. Join us!

The effect of Philip Schultz's 2007 collection, Failure, is an overpowering sense of fine craftsmanship and candid ambiance. With a voice plain, sure, and wholly unpretentious, he recounts smoldering moments past and present, which serve to illuminate the anxieties of family life in its varied stages. Though the title seems an epithet for "father" (both his own and the one he has become), Schultz ventures also into slices of marriage, mourns for kindred spirits of no relation, recounts the warm lamplight of one-time tenement-mates, and sings the extensive praises of canine love. In a sustained breathless intimacy, failure spans decades and coastlines ― with the New York's '70s and 2001 most heavily represented ― and oscillates between emotional insufficiency and utter wonder.

It might be the trust Schultz's words garner that first gives you the feeling that he's writing this right. You know he hit that last truth on the head: the unfailingly masterful line breaks, deft dialogue snippets, and succinct endings all carried it through. It's not just this corner you like; that certainly won't be the only perfect window. You have confidence that all you encounter will stay as true to the honest aura of the place.

I seem to remember something similar being said of ice dancer couple Torvill and Dean. "They can't fall," was the comment. Schultz is the same way: ironically, unfailing.

Only when he reaches particularly spiritual points does his execution stutter. What could surpass the original, incisive musing, "Was that the idea of California, / to be happy? Around us tiny / explosions of clouds, ebullient / sapphire light, wounded curves, / and the sunken emerald ocean"? Certainly not the contrived question, "why / was he so afraid / of the benevolence /deep inside him?"

It's not a matter of content; even the grotesque is rendered brightly, with a face toward the crystalline strange: "The smiling carcass of his face / in a moldy pond, his stomach / eating itself one blood-soaked prayer / and cabbage dream at a time." But it seems as though, in his philosophizing about fathers and dogs, Schultz slips into placeholder text; lines like "But even / we aren't us. (Nobody is.)," and "We're all afraid / of being swallowed" seem reminiscent of adolescent pseudo-breakthroughs or unspecific epiphanies born of some ungrounded dreamlike state.

My feeling? Schultz is best kept bottling brilliance and tending his grand capacity for awe. The serious, when he treats it with reverence rather than wonder, falls to depth-sapping ends. Indeed, you'll notice that it is his capacity to react rather than revere that composes the joy of failure itself: "a peculiar instinct / for happiness that / sustained me for a brief / but interesting time."

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents