Monday’s Poem: ‘My Meadow, My Twilight,’ by Carl Phillips

My Meadow, My Twilight

Sure, there’s a spell the leaves can make, shuddering,
and in their lying suddenly still again—flat, and still,
like time itself when it seems unexpectedly more
available, more to lose therefore, more to love, or
try to…
But to look up from the leaves, remember,
is a choice also, as if up from the shame of it all,
the promiscuity, the seeing-how-nothing-now-will-
save-you, up to the wind-stripped branches shadow-
signing the ground before you the way, lately, all
the branches seem to, or you like to say they do,
which is at least half of the way, isn’t it, toward
belief—whatever, in the end, belief
is…You can
look up, or you can close the eyes entirely, making
some of the world, for a moment, go away, but only
some of it, not the part about hurting others as the one
good answer to being hurt, and not the part that can
at first seem, understandably, a life in ruins, even if—
refusing ruin, because you
can refuse—you look
again, down the steep corridor of what’s just another
late winter afternoon, dark as night already, dark
the leaves and, darker still, the door that, each night,
you keep meaning to find again, having lost it, you had
only to touch it, just once, and it bloomed wide open …

Copyright © by Carl Phillips.  Printed by permission of the author.

Carl Phillips is the author of 11 books of poems, most recently Speak Low (2009) and Double Shadow, forthcoming from FSG in the spring of 2011. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Arts & Academe poetry editor Lisa Russ Spaar notes:

The gorgeous, syntactically intricate poems of Carl Phillips strike me as always haunted to some extent by an autumnal, adumbrated sensibility, a subtlety of consciousness in intimate argument with its own tangential forays and asides into volition, rhetoric, and refusal.  His is a “knowing” poised on the glinting knife-edge verge of disclosure, of revelation.

“My Meadow, My Twilight” is a stately, elegant poem, whose nuanced, deftly fulfilled, roughly six-stress lines evoke the hexameter of the Sibylline Oracles, fitting for this fresh take on an ancient subject:  the extent to which divination and oracle, or a belief in signs, can or should govern a life.  The reader is almost compelled to sing Phillips’s poem, nodding as it does, as well, to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s own enormous sonnet on a similar theme, “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves,” about which Hopkins wrote:  “It is, as living art should be, made for performance and that . . . performance is not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on. This sonnet should be almost sung: It is most carefully timed in tempo rubato.”

Yet Phillips begins in a responsive rather than a vatic mode, as though acknowledging a theory or statement, uttered offstage, and then countering it with that wonderfully colloquial first word, “sure,” whose deceptively offhand vernacular urges us to lean in and attend to the “spell the leaves can make, shuddering, / and in their lying suddenly still again.”  By line two we’re already deeply into the magic Phillips makes out of figuration and the inverted trellis of his sentences—OK, the poet says, sure, sometimes there can be a mysterious motion in the world that, when it stops, suddenly makes us believe that something profound has occurred, that time itself is “unexpectedly more / available [to us], more therefore to love, or / try to . . . .”  This in itself is a stunning metaphysical perception, but Phillips presses further, reminding the reader that “to look up from the leaves . . .[emphasis mine] / is a choice also, as if up from the shame of it all, / the promiscuity, the seeing-how-nothing-now-will / save-you, up to the wind-stripped branches shadow- / signing the ground before you.”  With leaves strewn below us, and bare branches rather than leaves in frenzied theatrics above, the winter world, the poet posits, with its shadow language, has its lessons to impart, as well.  Or at least we “like to say [it does], / which is at least half of the way, isn’t it, toward / belief – whatever, in the end, belief is.”

Again, to articulate in just 12 lines several intuitions about the pitch between fate and human volition, fiction and belief, is a philosophical as well as a poetic achievement.  Thrillingly, Phillips offers yet a third option for the seeker/listener, and that is to “close the eyes entirely.”  But even this tack, the speaker notes, will not take away those portions of ourselves, our lives, for which we, finally, and not some zodiacal inkling or quirk of the chthonic universe, are accountable—“the part about hurting others as the one / good answer to being hurt,” for example.

The poem concludes with a conflation of that inward gazing and what one presumes is the present tense setting and site of the poem’s meditation—a meadow at twilight, “the steep corridor of what’s just another / late winter afternoon, dark as night already, dark / the leaves and, darker still, the door that, each night, / you keep meaning to find again, having lost it, you had / only to touch it, just once, and it bloomed wide open . . . .” That lost door—love, belonging, the womb/tomb—is something to which we have access, however oneirically, perhaps best in poems.  Despite our ultimate culpability, shame, and responsibility, Phillips’s speaker tells us, we can choose, we can “[refuse] ruin.”  We can believe in belief, those sudden moments of the world’s language that amplify the self into meaning.

Photo by Flickr user Joccay

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