Saturday, September 06, 2003

Carl Phillips - St. Louis, MO

St. Louis is a city in all respects of the word. Big time sports - the baseball stadium rises up suddenly right in the middle of the central business district - industry, commerce, tourism. The gleaming silver arch is visible for miles as you arrive. Billboards outside of town advertise - in nearly equal numbers - casinos and churches. 

Parts of the city, west of the big river, reveal a diverse populace. Gentrified neighborhoods with coffee shops, book stores, and cobbled walkways, butt up against neighborhoods that look as though they didn't survive the bust of the 70s. You see empty storefronts, burned out houses, empty, weed-strewn fields, and every kind of trash - from half a pool table to truck tires - discarded alongside streets with pretty names like Euclid and LaClede.

But even at its worst, it's vibrant and bustling, street vendors are set up for a big Saturday. I see people selling everything from flowers to BBQ. There's one optimistic fellow sitting in a lawn chair selling - what appears to be - about 100 bar stools.

At a local grocery store, people gather at the front doors, some going in with empty baskets, talking to friends coming out with full ones. A sort of bare and dismal park is livened up by twenty kids working one giant Chinese kite, two older teenagers watching, actually almost rolling on the grass laughing, as the kite veers out of control and lands on the sidewalk, string sawed off by a "Drug-Free, Gun-Free" metal sign.

Carl Phillips' home hides on a gorgeous tree-lined street in the shadow of the 150 foot high giant green dome of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The house dates to the turn of the last century, and its front is dominated by a giant Magnolia tree. Inside, the house has high ceilings, hardwood floors - with occasional and surprising marble slab inlays. Carl's study is on the second floor, full of light from giant bay windows that open into the back yard, where one of two large dogs is waiting to see what my next move is.

Carl and I sit in the front living room, he's on the "dog's" couch; I'm in a big chair. Max, the milder of the two dogs, is barking at me. Barking doesn't cover it. As he barks I can see the muscles in his legs and back tense. His mouth flies open, the teeth, nice and white and present. If Carl were not so calm, I'd imagine that I just looked like a great big doggie treat to Max.

In a gorgeous late summer afternoon, Carl tells me about St. Louis and Massachusetts, his two homes. He's from Boston, and goes back there every summer, but has lived in St. Louis - in this house and another - for ten years. I'm interested in if he identifies himself with either place more, but, smiling, Carl confesses that he's probably just an "American" poet.

We talk about St. Louis' size. It's a city, full of the kinds of things anyone needs, but it's not "dizzying" like New York. He says he couldn't live in too small a town, citing Oberlin, Ohio, the current home of one of his friends, the poet Martha Collins (see below).

His proximity to the Basilica comforts him. He says he likes the hourly ringing of the bells, the "flocks" of nuns he sees each morning as they scuttle on his street.

When we're done, Carl walks me out to my truck and I say, looking back at his house, "This is a really great place."