Reviewed by Hannah Crane Sykes
Emilia Phillips’ 2018 collection Empty Clip reaches back into what is ancient in poetry and speaks to what is current in our culture. The voices in Empty Clip seem to be gathered from today’s headlines and concerns, a Greek chorus echoing back our fears and conclusions.
Obvious from the title, many poems in the collection connect in some way to gun violence in our culture and allow the reader space to consider their own point of view; other poems force the issue to more tender spots, like what does it mean to be in a time when being can so easily be taken.
The poems in the collection are primarily divided into two sections: Hollow Point and Split Screen. The poems in Hollow Point direct the reader into just that spot, the hollow point of our culture and our ideas about what’s unfolding in our country. Split Screen, on the other hand, allows for dichotomy and confronts technology with poetry.
“Overpass”, a poem in the Hollow Point section, is a meditation that presents the elements of everyday, like “green bottles collecting dust” and a highway overpass and lifts them to an artistic space. While some overpasses serve as the dramatic, a jumping off point, this particular one reminds the speaker of passing only. The speaker is reminded of how an overpass proves the passage of things and of time. Also, the overpass reminds her of how quickly we pass over trends in our culture:
“I’m ready to say/that whatever/holds/our attention is a brief/god, that Americans have many”.
Later in the poem, the reader finds some of the most beautiful, honest lines in the collection: “The more we speak of the/world,/the more it becomes concrete/& metaphor. So let me stop here –” and the reader is brought back to our reality; let us not speak too much lest we speak things into being, for good or bad.
“Dream of the Phone Booth”, found in the Split Screen section, offers a contemporary lamentation for the really collective experiences, like phone booths, that we are missing in our “connected” society. Again, the reader is on the concrete with the speaker and again, we are face-to-face with the mundane payphone. However, the opening lines:
“My story’s told in the mis-dial’s
hesitance and anonyms of crank calls,
in the wires’ electric elegy
and glass expanded by the moth
flicker of filament.”
are at once unifying and sad for those who remember the days of the phone booth, for those who remember the awkwardness and wonder that the telephone presented.
Like a prophet, Empty Clip serves as a kind of warning for those too quick to judge in the midst of a violent culture; the reader is invited to self-examination in the wake of so much violence. The reader is also warned against buying into the sterility of digital communication in lines like “I wish we could say/we are making ourselves eternal by making ourselves/forwardable, an afterlife in the cloud”.
Ultimately, Empty Clip seems to be a welcome voyeurism into our vulnerability; here’s how we came to know — which seems to be exactly what poetry should be, after all.