To Celebrate the 2023 Pulitzer Poetry Prize Winner – Esteemed American Poet and Teacher, Carl Phillips – Two of His Poems and One By American Poet Linda Gregg

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

That the Gods Must Rest

That the gods must rest doesn’t mean that they stop existing.
Is that true? Do you believe it’s true?

                                       I could tell it was morning

by all the crows rising again from that otherwise abandoned husk
of a car over there – so ruined, who can tell the make of it now,
what color. Or maybe if being stranded on a wind farm at night
with no stars to sing to could be a color – that color, maybe…
The way an unexpectedly fine idea will sometimes emerge from
what looked on the outside like the mind as usual treading water
was the crows, rising. A misleading clarity to the air, like logic:
he only wants what he deserves; he deserves everything he wants;
I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.

Carl Phillips from Then The War; And Selected Poems 2007-2020, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2022

I was delighted to discover that yesterday it was announced that the gay black American poet and teacher Carl Phillips had won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his latest (his sixteenth) full-length poetry collection, Then The War; And Selected Poems 2007-2020. Back in 2020, after the publication of his, then, last collection of poems, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, I featured him in a blog post. To read that post please click here. From that post this description of Carl:

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.

What I didn’t say in that post was how, so often, his poems end in a startling and utterly unexpected way as the does the epigraph poem featured above. How we go from gods, to morning, to crows, an abandoned wreck of a car, to being at a place on a starless night and how that could be a colour, to how great ideas arrive, to deserving, then wanting, then this:

I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.

So much surprise in this poem. To delight in the way Carl’s mind moves with the speed of a bird. Not just that ending which on such a slant seems to express an essence of loneliness. The speaker, there, on a morning where it seems the Gods are not present, are at rest, and the scene seems to embody a sense of desolation: a black wrecked car and crows, rising.

But within this scene, I mean really, Carl how do you get to this: to imagine a really fine idea as crows, rising? But based on something Carl said at an on-line book launch of In The War I think I get it. He said he does not take commissions to write a certain poem because  he only starts a poem not knowing what it will be. And so often, he like us, is discovering what his poem will be on the spot.

A poem that starts with a huge existential question about the Gods seems to become a poem about deserving loneliness. And, this is a feat, includes so many different pronouns: you, I, he, he, he, he, I, I, we. All this expansiveness in a poem that seems born of something so small: a speaker in the morning, on a wind farm, watching crows rising from a wrecked car.

And here in this next poem, just one sentence, such a fearful intimacy at the end, and Carl’s signature gesture toward sex and sexuality. And how Carl manages to take the image of a swan on water and turn it into metaphors for a man and his sexuality. And in this poem what Carl once said about it based on some notes from a workshop of his: how the poems captures the sorrow of navigating life or one’s sex life instinctively. But for animals, for whom sex is instinctive, for procreation only, how different, no feelings of being rejected or used.

Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain

Seen this way,
through that lens where need
and wanting swim at random

toward each other, away again, and
now and then together, he moves less like
a swan—black, or otherwise—than like any

man for whom sex is, or has at last become,
an added sense by which to pass ungently but more
entirely across a life where, in between the silences,

he leaves what little he’s got to show for himself
behind him in braids of water, green-to-blue wake of
Please and Don’t hurt me and You can see I’m hurt, already.

Carl Phillips from Silverchest, Fararr, Straus, Girous, 2013

So much more I could say about Carl and his poetry but to leave you just this.  How much Carl admires and has been influenced by the poetry of the American poet Linda Gregg. How much he has learned about the making of a poem through her. And how he said once to a group of us in a workshop that his favorite poem was Gregg’s poem: We Manage Most When We Imagine Small. In honour of Carl and his huge accomplishment today here is Gregg’s poem:


What things are steadfast? Not the birds.
Not the bride and groom who hurry
in their brevity to reach one another.
The stars do not blow away as we do.
The heavenly things ignite and freeze.
But not as my hair falls before you.
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
on water. Managing only greetings
and farewells. We love a little, as the mice
huddle, as the goat leans against my hand.
As the lovers quickening, riding time.
Making safety in the moment. This touching
home goes far. This fishing in the air.

Linda Gregg (1942-2019) from Too Bright To See, Graywolf Press, 1981

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