A Look Inside the Surprising Heart and Mind of American Poet Carl Phillips – A Poem From His 2018 Collection Wild Is The Wind and One from His 2020 Collection, Pale Colours in a Tall Field

American poet Carl Phillips (1959 – ) Photo Credit: The Huffington Post, 2015

WHAT I SEE IS THE LIGHT
FALLING ALL AROUND US

To have understood some small piece of the world

more deeply doesn't have to mean we're not as lost

as before, or so it seems this morning, random bees

stirring among the dogwood blossoms, a few here

and there stirring differently somehow, more like

resisting stillness...Should it come to winnowing

my addictions, I'd hold on hardest, I'm pretty sure,

to mystery, though just yesterday, a perfect stranger

was so insistent that I looked familiar, it seemed

easier in the end to agree we must know each other.

To his body, a muscularity both at odds and at one

with how fragile everything else about him, I thought,

would be, if I could see inside. What's the word

for the kind of loneliness that can feel like swimming

unassisted in a foreign language, for the very first time?

Carl Phillips from WILD IS THE WIND, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

I wanted to feature the gay African American poet and essayist Carl Phillips and a poem of his for many reasons. The first is to say he has just released his fifteenth collection of poems, Pale Colours in a Tall Field; second is to honour one of the most distinctive and unusual poetic voices of his generation; and third is to celebrate his skills as a teacher of poetry and poetics. I have attended two week-long poetry retreat/workshop sessions with Phillips and each triggered me into fresh new poems.

I won’t list all Phillips’s many poetry honours but just to say he is a professor at Washington University in St Louis and from 2010 to 2020 he has been the most recent judge of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. He has also been a finalist (2014) and a judge (2010) for the celebrated Toronto-based Griffin Poetry Prize and a finalist (2011) for prestigious American National Book Award. To see a 2014 video interview with Carl through the Washington Post please click here.

The book from which the poem above comes from has been folded to the page of that poem on my desk for months. Periodically it gets buried and I forget it. Then it gets unearthed and then buried again! But last week I discovered the eco-journal Emergence Magazine on-line and found an astounding essay by Phillips called Trees. There is both an audio and print version of the poem on the Emergence site. To hear or read the essay please click here. To hear Phillips read this equisite piece of writing is to be cast under a spell that takes time to  fade!

To enter into a Carl Phillips poem is to embrace wonder and mystery and to surrender to both. The wonder of his rich language and his disarming conversational voice that seems to place him right beside me as I read. Yet in that seemingly casual voice he can throw out astounding complex and perplexing ideas one after another. And as well he can communicate a sense of physicality and intimacy especially around sexual encounters that adds a haunting immediacy to his work.


And how surprising his poems are as well as he weaves the outer world and his inner thoughts together with such confidence. It is as if we get to see the strange connections and leaps of thought he makes in his mind in real time. And somehow I want to hang on for the ride. He busts up everyday linear thinking and description big time. And I realize that this disorienting effect in his poems pulls me deeper inside them. Nothing boring or prosy about them. But they are more complex and mysterious than they may appear at first reading. I remember from a talk this past July at Centrum by Carl in Washington State saying that you don’t always need to understand a poem or some lines in a poem to appreciate it and find it powerful. I find this true with his poems. Overall the poems  resonate even if I can’t also fully place all the meanings!

It’s this not quite knowing where you are in a Phillips poem that draws me in. I seem to accept the mystery because each element in the poem holds my attention. And his big abstract thoughts engage me so deliciously. I mean, who comes up with thie kind of idea or statement anyway: To have understood some small piece of the world/ more deeply doesn’t mean we’re not as lost as before. As if that thought wasn’t enough on its own he then seems to downplay it in a wonderfully casual and offhand manner: or so it seems this morning. And then, in come the bees in the dogwoods. Are they the piece of the world he understands more deeply this morning? And does it matter?

While I am still absorbing the intellectual statement preceding the bees he’s off again with another intellectual statement that seems tangential at best to what’s come before. Talk about switching pitches. Suddenly he talking about addictions and mystery as one of his biggies. Where did that come from? Was it from meeting this stranger he was forced to agree with that they they had somehow known each other before. Really?

And then his complicated syntax around his mysterious impressions of the stranger. The mysteriousness of that syntax ( we know he loves mystery!) The way he starts his complex sentence:To his body… What? How does he come up with that construction? I want to change it to As to his body, its muscularity. But I don’t need to change it. It’s mysterious and I will accept the mystery; the way he thinks and says things. His wondering how this stranger’s body seemed both at odds and at one/ with how fragile everything else about him, I thought , would be, if I could see inside. I love the impact of the conditional, if! And how sensitive Phillips (his narrator) is to pick up these nuanced ideas about a stranger.

The latest poetry collection by American poet Carl Phillips

Now, in the last lines, the frigging bounding leap to an intellectual musing over a certain kind of loneliness. Another big “What the heck” moment! But, for me, what a deliciousness in Phillips attempt to pin down a certain kind of loneliness. Forget about where that idea came from, the bees, the Dogwoods, the stranger. I revel in Phillip’s attempt to describe this kind of loneliness. How real he makes it. How specific. A loneliness from the utter dislocation of being in a country unable to understand the language or to be understood in yours!

Now, maybe strangely placed, what do I make of the title? WHAT I SEE IS THE LIGHT /FALLING ALL AROUND US. What do you make of it? For me it is a poem by itself. In spite of what sometimes for me can see like a sharp edge to some of Carl’s lines, especially around physicality and sexuality there is a vulnerable tenderness also. The tenderness in this title. And a a sense of marvel at the light in the world. In spite of. In spite of. Oh, that in spite of all our flaws and cruelities we humans are also creatures of light. Of goodness. That’s my take. What’s yours?

What a trip of a poem. To go from understanding a part of the world, to being lost still, to bees and dogwoods, a stranger and a case of mistaken identity, a body at one and at odds with someone’s fragile inner self and all of this ending with loneliness! And all of it surrounded in light! A poetic journal entry in a Carl Phillip’s day. Don’t I wish I could write journal entries like this. That I would have a thinking mind this interesting and attentive!

Here, now, is a poem from Carl’s new poetry collection. I don’t want to say too much about it to begin except to say notice the syntax, the relentless momentum of this poem. Like longing. No true stop or period in the whole poem. A few slowdowns but not a full stop. And in the pell-mell of the words a dream-like atmosphere as if in some enchanted wood and meadow. An otherworldly place of love and longing. And more me the astonishing last lines. Trademark Phillips.

ON BEING ASKED TO BE

MORE SPECIFIC WHEN

IT COMES TO LONGING

When the forest ended, so did the starflowers and wild
ginger that for so long had kept us
company, the clearing opened before us, a vast
meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an
angled argument against despair, then only weeds by
a better name again, as incidental as
the backdrop the ocean made just
beyond the meadow … Like taking
a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might
more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point

in twilight where twilight seems most
a bowl designed to turn routinely but
as if by accident half roughly
over: bells somewhere, the kind
of bells that, before being housed finally
in their towers, used to
have to be baptized, each was given—
to swing by or fall hushed inside of,
accordingly—its own name; bells, and then—
from the smudged edge of all that
seemed to be left of what we’d called

belief, once, bodies, not of hunting-birds, what we’d
thought at first, but human bodies in flight,
in flight and lit from within as if
by ruin, or triumph, maybe, at having
made out of ruin a light, something
useful by which, having skimmed the water, to search
the meadow now, for ourselves inside it where, yes, though we
shook in our nakedness, we lay
naked as we’d been taught to do: when afraid,
what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give; and you shall receive.

Carl Phillips from Pale Colors in a Tall Field, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020

Oh the layers of description in this poem. The fuild movement from one thing to another. From flowers, plants, a wood, to a meadow, to a horsewhip, to bees, to twilight, to bowls to bells to belief, bodies, hunting birds and finally to lovers lit from within as if my ruin, or triumph, maybe, at having made out of ruin a light. And then that last Phillipian big-thought flourish:  when afraid/ what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself— give; and you shall receive. Oh. And knowing Carl’s poetry. this wonderful last though not a Hallmark card remark. In the shadow of these luminous lines I hear a darker note. The note that says sometimes faith is misplaced and when we give we might receive something not of light and love but of darkness. But in faith, in faith we make a gift of ourselves. In faith. And my gut says, please God help us! And the fisherman’s prayer: Oh God be good to me, the ocean is so wide and my boat is so small!

These richly made lines. The startling truth I feel in my bones when I read: lit from within as if/ by ruin, or triumph. Oh!

and lit from within as if
by ruin, or triumph, maybe, at having
made out of ruin a light, something
useful by which, having skimmed the water, to search
the meadow now, for ourselves inside it where, yes, though we
shook in our nakedness, we lay
naked as we’d been taught to do: when afraid,
what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give; and you shall receive.

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