Man's Best Friend
Failure by Philip Schultz
Now here is a subject one doesn’t see poetry address all that often—especially with such a warm, complicated embrace. To Philip Schultz, recent co-winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, failure is not a pejorative but a state of being. Try to appreciate the bounty of the world, several of these poems suggest, and you will likely fail; try to ignore it and you will fail as well.
And then there is the plain old everyday sense of the word, which has haunted Schultz in adult life. “To pay for my father’s funeral,” begins the title poem, “I borrowed money from people/he already owed money to./One called him a nobody./No, I said, he was a failure. You can’t remember a nobody’s name, that’s why/they’re called nobodies./Failures are unforgettable.”
Schultz does not write a tremendously complex poetic line, but his lived-in ruminations and stripped-down, oracular voice give these poems the feel of something hard-won. Several poems refer to stints in the St. Vincent’s psychiatric ward in New York, or in a San Francisco hospital 30 years ago. “What was I doing here,/in this public pain?” the poet asks. “Was this what failure was—/endless fear?” Another section puts madness even more succinctly: “Sometimes/in order/to feel superior/to its failures,/my brain lies to me.”
The slippage from daily life is one of Schultz’ great topics, and he can wind up there even with a pastoral first line. “It’s Sunday Morning in Early November” begins like a litany of things to do—rake leaves, fix a broken storm window, take his kid fishing. But gradually these mundane tasks shade into big ones, which dissolve into darkness. “I could sit by the window watching the leaves,” he writes, “which know exactly how to fall from one moment to the next. Or I could lose/everything and have to begin over again."
There are, of course, cheerier poems, poems of tribute and homage. But behind Schultz’ sunny self-admonitions, his anxious appreciations of the East Hampton coastline, one senses an enormous darkness fighting to get in. “We’re all afraid/of being swallowed,” he writes in “The Wandering Wingless,” a long poem that comprises half of this book. For Schultz, the darkness doesn’t just emerge from his mind, but also from his past, coalescing in memories he compresses into beautiful, terribly mournful poetry:
When Dad’s heart
he stopped slamming doors
and shouting every thought.
He stopped slapping backs,
joking all the time,
and pissing into coffee cups
because he was running late.
He stopped crying
in the toilet
when he thought everyone
Schultz uses reversals like this—one typically cries into a cup, not a toilet—brilliantly throughout Failure. Many poems feature dogs doing things more common to people—caring, giving empathy—and people doing dog things—sleeping in parks, visiting dog runs, sticking their nose into the weather.
Cutesy as some of these inversions can seem at first, it’s hard to blame Schultz for making them: “We all like a little self-rhapsody,” he writes, speaking for us and the four-legged. Also: “No one wants to live/in the dark wood,/outside himself,/alone at night.” It's a fact these poems attest to with great power.