Emilia Phillips’s first collection of poems, Signaletics, masterfully builds an atmosphere like that of an ancient laboratory where the tools are out and books still open. She references texts such as Al-Jazari’s medieval Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206), a volume on alchemy, and incorporates lines of Morse code in her poems.
Employing a muscular vocabulary with a mix of antiquated lexica and stark conversational phrases, Phillips moves in and out of history, even within a line, as in:
metal on the X-ray like blood inside a mosquito
locked in cretaceous amber
(“Subject in the Position of the Solder with No Arms”)
A real feat of this collection is how her simpler lyric stands up to the complex, layered pastiche, and it’s just as strong. The mood of the collection is never broken; it remains haunting, as in the poem, “Subject in the Position of the Solder with No Arms,” where she writes:
You must hold still. There’s a storm in the western sky.
Beneath god’s empty shoulder socket, you’re a hailstone
of nerves, the fist clenched at the end of a phantom arm.
Signaletics invokes fever, disease, and loss; yet Phillips confidently treads spaces with intelligence and curiosity. Regarding science and the body as a young girl, she writes,
But then I didn’t care about being pure. I wanted to be
nothing, to come out
of my uniform, hipbones shrugging off
the grey skirt, I wanted to rise through the collar
like blue flame from a Bunsen burner,
leave so that no one knew, my clothes holding
the shape I gave them in the desk.
There is curiosity in language as well. Poems dwell in the paradox of how naming helps to define our understanding of the world. In “The Study Heads,” Phillips writes, “From Arabic, we digested zenith,
albatross, and ghoul.
[. . .] the femoral grazed . . . .
On the phone, I misunderstood, heard:
This relationship of language affecting our memory expands until personal and vocal understandings of a word can exist as alternate definitions. Memory is a palpable theme throughout Signaletics, as the poems are haunted by a missing father. Within the pages of the collection he is found then lost again. He advises his daughter on the ways the body is recognized, or could be found if missing:
If you’re ever kidnapped, bite
the car door, my father said one Sunday
after the divorce, Crown Vic en route
to his office. Teeth marks. I can find you
The father’s advice, involving teeth marks and fingerprints, speaks to the distinguishing features of who we are, or rather, the features that tell others who we are, often when we are unable to. This understanding of the body is crucial to Signaletics, which takes its title from an arcane system of cataloguing the body used to identify criminals via measurements and individual features.
Intertwining ancient and contemporary impressions of bodies works especially well. For example, in “Bertillonage Fragment, II: Buste,” she writes,
Not heads or genitalia, legs
or hands, but more torsos
survive from classical architecture—
[. . .] some men
breathe in to fool the measurements
Here and elsewhere, when writing about the present day or near past, the scenes are presented to the reader as through the light of the x-ray film illuminator, one sees the bones and organs of its history. She alludes to Dante, Joyce, Milton, Montaigne, Niedecker, Shakespeare, and an R.L. Garner, who “locked himself inside a cage in the French Congo for three months to record and study the vocal communication of primates.” Brave and surefooted, no subject feels too large for Phillips in this collection. Indeed, in an Enlightenment sentiment, she writes,
If one of you can
point to this and say
This is untrue,
then it is.