by Peter Vanderberg
Mimer is a riddle told by the sphinx. Read “riddle” as spare, enigmatic poems that confuse and seduce. Read “sphinx” as ancient quandary, primal question, mortal dilemma, classical figure, myth, author.
One can say opal until one’s tongue swells.
One hawk may not mean mouth at risk.
Those two lines comprise the entire poem entitled, “From Nietzsche’s Bed” and that is the same title given for eleven poems, all from the section “From Nietzsche’s Bed.” So many questions spool out from these two spare lines. Is this an instruction for reading the book? Is this a truth about the body? Is this a warning? Such is the dilemma and pleasure of Mimer.
Stay with me for a bit on the sphinx — of Egyptian origin, but in this manifestation, I think our sphinx is Greek. The poems in Mimer continually reach back to Greek mythology for reference and figure. The title poem is a dialogue, or an erased dialogue, between Aristotle and Alexander, presumably the great Greek philosopher and conqueror respectively.
Aristotle: wind over those crows
Aristotle: foot the arch
Alexander: one must possess protection as one’s own skin
The dialogue takes place in these short bursts over six pages. The feel is of a duel of perspectives, dual perspectives, evolving definitions, associative play, disconnect, connect. The pages that contain these interactions are mostly blank. I believe Phillips invites the reader to stay with each page, to linger in the blank silence allowing associations to grow and connections to be disrupted.
As any great philosopher or prophet, Mimer breaks our linear-leaning thought processes. One must approach this book (really any good book) with intent to consider; with intent to search. In his brief author statement (found here), Phillips offers, “I think of the book as a
collection of parables, but in the sense that Crossan uses the term, as disruptors.” That said, the book certainly disrupts. The syntax is unfamiliar:
Semen & mint from the basin
One indicates eye with grinding teeth, sun
Entitled, “The Human Is Over,” the poem ends there. One can say this poem until one’s tongue swells, but any meaning wrung from it must be invented through a new grammar. The images are rich enough to invite one to try. The confusion we are left with invites us to the next riddle.
Eventualities honeycomb out mouth
Besieged have am silver sill peck
Under curtain moon propriety
Moan his ear due again
Moan a shriller value a one
Must simply accept as to money
The world below Sybil tearing
A squash an apple beating her
Breast before him marked domicile
This from the section “SUB-” is representative of Phillips ‘disrupted’ syntax. The words must be thought through singularly, then as combinations that may or may not invite reordering. The poem is a three-dimensional thing and so forces the reader to think along several axis. Sensuality is here. As is the natural world and a few human concepts that attempt to force sense from it all.
Back to the sphinx: a threshold keeper that is said to have devoured those who could not answer its riddles. This raises the question: what is at stake in Mimer? Certainly not death, yet perhaps Phillips suggests something about consciousness here. If we do not allow our concepts of self, other, world to be disrupted; if we do not experience fracture, can we ever have a life constructed on purpose? Perhaps Phillips suggests disruption is necessary so that we can rebuild authentic methods of understanding. Perhaps not.
This reader at least remained in a liminal state throughout Mimer: on the threshold of understanding, but not passing through the gate. I may have pocketed a few “meanings” by the end of the book, but they are too uncertain to mention here. Phillips disrupted my way of thinking, and I am grateful for that experience.
Get Mimer from Ahsahta: $18.00.
Peter Vanderberg is the founding editor of Ghostbird Press. He served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from CUNY Queens College. Recent work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches art and creative Writing at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.