I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
January 1, 2020: Carl Phillips
Back in 2009 when I opened Speak Low (2009) to read my first Carl Phillips poems, I flew through, trying to find one I understood. But they were difficult, and I couldn’t attach. So I started again, slowly, reading one and putting the book down, picking it up later and reading a few more. Little by little, pieces of poems broke off and meant something. My understanding inched forward and backward, swirled up.
Carl often begins with a declaration and then questions it, backing away in a move toward the truth. He’s a poet who “writes from a supposedly clear space into a space of surprise.” And this place is often one of “a heightened awareness of something troubling.” (The Art of Daring, 58)
the water / was water–was a form of clarity itself, a window we’ve / no sooner looked through than we’ve abandoned it for what / lies past that: a view… (“Speak Low”)
In this first excerpt from the title poem of Speak Low, the repetition is like a mantra that opens us to a comparison, the poem becoming the window itself, the view inward.
Suspecting, even then, / that the best way to avoid being / broken by flaw would be to shape my life / around it–flaw coming slowly / to define the self… (“A Little Moonlight”)
The above excerpt from Speak Low always sends me on a search for the particular flaw I might choose to shape my life around.
The next book of Carl’s that I read was Double Shadow (2011), I chose the lines below for the way they send us looking above to the stars, for the unlikely comparison, and for the way the last line reveals the poet, reveals us.
What am I, that I should stand / so apart from my own happiness? The stars did / what they do, mostly: looked unbudging, transfixed, / like cattle asleep in a black pasture, all the restlessness / torn out of them, away, done with. I turn beneath them. (“Heaven and Earth”)
After Double Shadow came Silverchest (2013), “Bow, and Arrow” my favorite, possibly because it spoke so clearly to the novel I was working on. I thought often of using the following excerpt as the epigraph.
Not the war, but the part just after,
when a great stillness whose beauty we’d have
missed, possibly, had we instead
been spared, hovers over the ruins.
And from “So The Mind Like A Gate Swings Open,” this line, “The snow fell like / hope when it’s been forsaken…” The snow fell not just like hope, but like hope when it’s been forsaken. I read this and I’m standing in the snow… And this line, “I love you / means what, exactly?” Cracking open preconceived notions, sending us for the truth, or the truth of this moment. These two different lines showing how Carl’s poems can show us the world and also ourselves.
In The Art of Daring (2014), part of Graywolf’s Art Of series, Carl defines poetry as words that give us the world as we had not seen it, that make us question what we had thought we knew. (36) He talks about the artist’s sensibility as restlessness, as a willingness to enter into uncertainty and “the quest for meaning, for heightened feeling, for expanded vision, even if that should mean that we arrive at what disturbs, leaving us more unsettled, less at rest than we had been.” (38)
The poems of mine that I consider successful are the ones where some part of me seems to have dared another part to do something that if I were fully aware of it, I’d never do: use a certain word, let a sentence find its own wilderness, speak on subjects I’d more likely suppress talking about in my daily life. (122)
Wild is the Wind was published in 2018. “From a Bonfire” gave me a line that I think of all the time–“What hasn’t been useful?”
And from the title poem, this.
If I refuse, increasingly, to explain, isn’t / explanation, at the end of the day, what the sturdier / truths most resist?
I’m currently reading Carl’s 15th (I think) collection–the chapbook Star Map With Action Figures (2019). Click over to VQR to read the first poem, “And If I Fall.” Which includes another sentence I keep circling back to–“I cathedral.” (A number of his books have cathedral poems.) But really, I love this whole poem. I love it for its repetition and imagery and language and the way it keeps exploding like fireworks and expanding like water burbling up from a hidden spring. It’s a poem that makes me want to steal away to write.
Carl’s most recent book–whatever that may be–doesn’t live on my bookshelf or even on my desk but in my carry-on, so that I always have poetry, his poetry, wherever I am. So that I can read a line or a poem or several poems, letting them wash over me and work their magic. On March 3, 2020, I will have a new book to stick in my black bag–Pale Colors in a Tall Field. Which is now available for pre-order.
Come back on JANUARY 1st to read how CARL PHILLIPS spends his days.