Pushcart 2014: Carl Phillips, “Your Body Down in Gold” (Poetry) from Sugar House Review Spring/Summer 2012

You can make of the world’s parts something
elemental, you can say the elements mean
something still worth fucking a way forward for:
maybe the dream coming true; maybe the dream,
true to form, coming undone all over again –
you can do that, or not, while a sail unfurls,
or a door
blows shut . . .[…]

I’ve been letting this one simmer a few day, because I see two different threads in it; I’m still not sure if I’m misreading one of them, or if there are indeed two different threads, and if so, how they’re related, besides the obvious fact that we all have many concerns in life so we’re allowed to think about two things at once.

I very much like the play of language and form in many places here (and because ellipses play a role in this poem, I’ve enclosed my ellipses, indicating continuations, in brackets while leaving the poet’s ellipses bare). Right in the first three lines, “something elemental” becomes “the elements mean something” right on cue with line breaks, followed by the repetition of “forward for”; nice. Then there’s the wonderful way the door blows shut. It looks like a door blowing shut, and when I read it out loud, I read it like a door blowing shut.

In this first stanza, I think of a couple of things. The dream deferred, I have a dream, of course; but is that because I know the poet is African American, or is it intrinsic to the poem? I think if it had been “a dream” I might not’ve had that association, but I can’t be sure at this point. In any event, there’s the sense of a choice striving for something longed for, or doing nothing and watching the ship sail and the door blow shut, and which person do you want to be? I get a sense of a chance for change lost, “true to form,” here (a sentiment I’m not unfamiliar with at this moment in time), something massive and universal as opposed to personal.

But then there’s a shift:

[…]So it turns out there’s more
of a difference between love and deep affection
than you’d have chosen. So what?[…]

To me, this shifts the focus from the sociopolitical to the interpersonal realm; from community to heart. To re-read the first stanza in this new, more personal sense, makes it about lost love, and that doesn’t feel right, but am I just forcing the poem into a box made of my own preconceptions, instead of letting it go where it wants? Not every poem by a black poet has to be about race, after all.

In any event, I love the situation and the rhetorical question here. It’s a turn: ok, you’ve been disappointed, it’s not the first time:

[…]Remember
the days of waking to disasters various, and of
at least in part your own doing, and saying
aloud to no one I have decided how I would
like to live my life, and it isn’t
this way, and
how you actually believed it: you’d change,
the world would?[…]

Again I get the intermingling of the community and the personal, but this time, it was due to my own misreading: I saw “waking” as “walking” and immediately connected it with John Lewis on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. Man, I really want this poem to be about civil rights (I just dove into a lot of history for research on “Tallahatchie” and I think it’s coloring my perceptions), but I don’t think it is. But I think it’s important to note my own reading miscues, so as to get them out of the way and see what’s actually there.

Here we are with a guy waking up knowing he’s screwed up and deciding to change, but here comes another rhetorical question connecting poet and reader, bringing me into the poem, into his mind (no matter how hard I’m trying to mold him into my perception): we’ve all been there. I’ll drink less, start the diet, spend more wisely, work out, not sleep around so much, starting now. And we do believe it. Until the bottle, the cake, the shoes, the couch, the gonads call, and we’re back to where we started.

But what’s this about maybe the world changing? Wait, is he connecting these two realms, comparing the personal disappointment with the more communal one? That’s pretty amazing, too. Or am I just unable to let go of my own path?

[…]Man with a mourning dove in
one eye, rough seas in the other, lately the light –
more than usual, it seems – finds us brokenly. I say
let’s brokenly start shouldering the light right back.

When I read these lines about light, I immediately thought of the ModPo discussion of the poetic “conversation” between Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” and Eldredge Knight’s “The Sun Came”: the light/dark, night/day imagery of the sun knocking fiercely on the door, the morning coming whether we’re ready for it or not. I also immediately went the Obama presidency: the dove in one eye, the message from his first inauguration, hoping to heal the divide as Lincoln did, but rough seas in the other, and no one has had rougher seas than this President. But I think I really left the poem behind on this one, and went off on my own tangent. Let’s get back to the light: Maybe the light finds us brokenly – is it the light that’s broken, us, both? Maybe in the first case it’s time we started pushing back a little, get the light to shape up and find us, dammit; and in the second, it’s we ourselves who need to shape up and meet it half way.

I’m not sure this poem took me where it intended, or where Phillips intended. But it sure took me, and I was very happy to take the ride.

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