Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) by Emilia Phillips, cover design by Amy Freels
by Emilia Phillips
University of Akron Press

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.

The 2012 Editor’s Choice in the Akron Poetry Prize and a 2013 release from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics is titled after a 19th-century system of anthropometrical criminal identification developed by Alphonse Bertillon and based on nine measurements of the human body: height, wingspan, bust, length of the head, width of the head, right ear, left foot, left middle finger, and left forearm.

“The contexts for the poems and sequences that make up Emilia Phillips’s remarkable first book Signaletics are several: literary, political, religious, autobiographical, and arguably most intriguing the realm of forensics—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

“When I first read this book, I was impressed to find a writer who tells the truth about our American moment with such ferocity, honesty, nuance, wit, and humor. I was delighted to find a writer whose idiom—precise, felt, musically subtle—brushes away the fogged-up verbiage and philosophical hiccuping of our various period styles.

What’s equally refreshing is the range of her subjects: a poem about her father, a forensics expert, taking the fingerprints of his just dead son as a keepsake; a sequence about automata; a wide-ranging poem about sex, marriage, and a miscarriage; and a prose poem that contrasts the reenactment of a Civil War battle with the strangeness of everyday life.

Phillips’s seriousness of vision pervades all these subjects, and this book is remarkable for how it explores the undercurrent of violence, and spiritual unease and dislocation, that pervades our national life. And she does all this in a way that feels truly experimental—if experimental means not to swear allegiance to one set of politics or aesthetics, but to feel free to work in many modes at once, from meditative to lyric to serial to the autobiographical. Above all, these poems testify that Phillips is a writer who believes in what Osip Mandelstam calls ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation.'”
— Tom Sleigh

“During a time when far too many young poets are publishing safe, dutiful, and emotionally arid verse, Emilia Phillips’s 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.”
— David Wojahn


Signaletics and Emilia Phillips featured in “Breaking Through the Noise: Our Ninth Annual Look at Debut Poets” by Victoria Chang in Poets & Writers, January/February 2014

“For text, Phillips seems to attest, is as much a somatic residue as is a bloodstain—a physical remainder, a mimetic act in excess of the body.”
Maggie Millner, “The Remnants of the Dead Stir Minor Resurrections: Emilia Phillips’ Signaletics on ZYZZYVA

“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.”
Lauren Hilger, “Review of Signaletics by Emilia Phillips” on Green Mountains Review

“Three Reviews: Daisy Fried’s Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk and Filth, and Emilia Phillips’s Signaletics by Rebecca Hazelton Stafford on Poetry

“Things to Keep: Signaletics by Emilia Phillips and Hum by Jamaal May” by Melissa Crowe on Beloit Poetry Journal

“Review | Signaletics, by Emilia Phillips” by Craig Beaven on Blackbird

“Ghost Confederacy: Meditation on the Haunted Lyric; Richmond, Virginia; and Three Debut Poetry Collections” (Signaletics by Emilia Phillips, Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, and Scratching the Ghost by Dexter Booth) by Anna Journey on Blackbird

Review of Signaletics by Matthew Pierce on The Tusculum Review

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