Signaletics pits the measured against the immeasurable, the body against identity, and the political against the personal. With a defunct nineteenth-century body measurement system of criminal identification as a foundation, the poems move in and out of history, only to arrive at the immediate voice of a speaker, distraught about the death of a child brother, the remove of a father, and the estrangement of the personal with the politics of her country.
During a time when far too many young poets are publishing safe, dutiful, and emotionally arid verse, Emilia Phillips’ gutsy and accomplished debut collection is especially welcome. Her poems are exquisitely crafted, filled with tough self-reckonings as well as learnedness—and, above all, they are consummately strange. Signaletics is an eerily outlandish Cabinet of Wonders, where our quotidian lives commingle with automata, “the speech of monkeys,” the history of fingerprinting photography, and skin mags from the Eisenhower era. Phillips offers her Cuisinart-ed allusions not for the sake of mere novelty, but as means of defying the essential estrangement that is our lot in contemporary culture. This is a very ambitious goal indeed.
The contexts for the poems and sequences that make up Emilia Phillips’s remarkable first book Signaletics—literary, political, religious, autobiographical, and arguably most intriguing, the realm of forensics—are in Phillips’s hands a reminder that poetry itself is a forensic endeavor; part science, part argument, all in pursuit of a truth. Her work inventive, her formal range and flexibility admirable and always “scalpel-edged,” Emilia Phillips is an important new voice in contemporary poetry.
— Claudia Emerson