For this Soap Bubble Set feature, Carl Phillips has curated a series of eight poems that span his career. These poems, from X to Of the Shining Underlife, appear in chronological order, providing a retrospective overview of the scope of Phillips’ vision and voice.
Several hours past that
of knife and fork
laid across one another
to say done, X
is still for the loose
stitch of beginners,
grinding next door
that says no one
but you, the pucker
of lips only, not yet
the wounds those lips
may be drawn to. X,
as in variable,
anyone’s body, any set
of conditions, your
body scaling whatever
fence of chain-metal Xs
desire throws up, what
your spreadeagled limbs
suggest, falling, and
now, after. X, not
just for where in my
life you’ve landed,
but here too, where
your ass begins its
dividing, where I
sometimes lay my head
like a flower, and
think I mean something
by it. X is all I keep
meaning to cross out.
As from a Quiver of Arrows
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and then gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, a chewed cap
to a pen elsewhere – how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
Would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo – why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
or intended a safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn’t want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
from oblation and memory, if we forget,
and can’t sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Do we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
Return to the Land of the Golden Apples
Blue wash. The winged horses look
like horses – artless, free
of connotation. They hide
just now their wings,
or they forget, or do not
think to make
much more of a gift
for flight than
of the water viewable
behind them – a sea,
a lake –
which they ignore, pulling
at the record-of-where-a-wind-was,
and other flowers
whose growth has even
outstripped the grass, the colors
wind as far as the ruined tower, up
even to the room that
crowns it, over the half moss, half
ledge of window, glassless,
into the room, which is small,
not empty: the body,
and a mirror. Inside
the mirror, the body
– sometimes the way, in
sudden shadow, will any
as the hero stops
in the gathering light of reputation
he soon must recognize
is his own. The body
inside the mirror, turning,
singing I am the one who forces,
I am the one who stays
I am the grit gone somehow
shine, the blow,
the forced thing, opening
– Singing inside the mirror,
to no one, to
itself, the body folding, and
unfolding – as if
map, then shroud – its song.
After the Afterlife
Bones, for sure. Feathers almost the white
of an eagle’s undershaftings in its first year.
Any wind, that stirs. Punishment in death
as it is in trembling: how it lifts, descends,
though – like having meant to be kind yet
failing anyway – it can do no good. After
the afterlife, there’s an afterlife. A stand of
cottonwood trees getting ready all over again,
because it’s spring, to release their seeds that
only look like cotton; they’re not cotton, at all.
What we lose, without thinking to; what we
give, for free. Distinctions that, if they even
did before, now don’t matter. Any shadows
that break break randomly across these waters.
To life, without ever asking what animal exactly it once belonged to,
the socketed helmet that what’s left of the skull equals
up to your face, to hold it there, mask-like, to look through it until
looking through means looking back, back through the skull,
into the self that is partly the animal you’ve always wanted to be,
that – depending – fear has prevented or rescued you from becoming,
to know utterly what you’ll never be, to understand in doing so
what you are, and say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.
Overheard, Under a Dark Enchantment
Compassion first, we were told – and it that won’t work,
compassion’s shadow, pity, to smooth what’s rough.
just holding the victim’s hand, lately, has been exactly enough.
And If I Fall
There’s this cathedral in my head I keep
making from cricket song and
dying but rogue-in-spirit, still,
bamboo. Not making. I keep
imagining it, as if that were the same
thing as making, and as if making might
bring it back, somehow, the real
cathedral. In anger, as in desire, it was
everything, that cathedral. As if my body
itself cathedral. I conduct my body
with a cathedral’s steadiness, I
try to. I cathedral. In desire. In anger.
Light enters a cathedral the way persuasion fills a body.
Light enters a cathedral, the way persuasion fills a body.
Of the Shining Underlife
Above me, the branches toss toward and away from each other
the way privacy does with what ends up
showing, despite ourselves, of
who we are, inside.
Then they’re branches again – hickory, I think.
– It’s not too late, then.