Pushcart XLIII: Carl Phillips, “Monomoy” (poem) from Poetry, Jan. 2017

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Somewhere, people must still do things like fetch
water from wells in buckets, then pour it out
for those animals that, long domesticated, would
likely perish before figuring out how to get
for themselves. That dog, for example, whose
refusal to leave my side I mistook, as a child,
for loyalty — when all along it was just blind …

Complete poem available online at Poetry

It’s time to abandon all the agonizing and just write about the poem, as I read it. I take a cue from the title: Monomoy is an island, now uninhabited and partly converted to a nature preserve, just off Cape Cod. I imagine the speaker walking around the island, enjoying the quiet and beauty, while various thought go through his mind. Maybe they’re triggered by what he sees; maybe they’re just what’s on his mind that day.

I can see four distinct though related thoughts. The first, above, might be triggered by the absence of artifacts on the island. The example of the dog feels terribly sad, but also shows that we construct reality, we don’t necessarily perceive it.

The speaker then considers vulnerability, how it can invite abuse and violence. He constructs a scene where someone overhears a stranger’s comment – “Don’t you see how you’ve burnt almost / all of it, the tenderness, away” – and tries to ignore it. We call it privacy, or feel embarrassed, but maybe we move away because the vulnerability might be contagious.

Then there’s a short riff on estrangement, sacrifice, drama: “then it’s pretty much the difference / between waking up to a storm and waking up / inside one.” One is objective, the subject as observer, a roof or a pane of glass or at least a sheet of vinyl between skin and wet; the other is subjective, drowning in rain.

The final section is a lovely little anecdote:

…. Who can say how she got there — 
in the ocean, I mean — but I once watched a horse
make her way back to land mid-hurricane: having
ridden, surfer-like, the very waves that at any moment
could have overwhelmed her in their crash to shore, she
shook herself, looked back once on the water’s restlessness — 
history’s always restless — and the horse stepped free.

That look back on what she escaped, that’s a beautiful moment, the physical reality of seeing the storm versus being in it, from the better side.

I’d thought the ideas that ran through the poem – the loyalty/need, vulnerability, estrangement, and escape from the storm – were in the sphere of human socialization, brought about by interactions with the natural environment of the island: the dog, the storms, the horse. But it seems it’s more individual than that.

The poem is one of the final entries in Phillips’ 2018 collection, Wild is the Wind. Jason Gray’s review of the book in Image was highly instructive, in that he saw Phillips using nature as Emily used her environs: “The horses, the sea, the leaves are his bees and Amherst garden.” I could see that: a sort of scaffold onto which to project meaning. But I was still in Soc 101.

Then I found an interview Sophie Weiner did with Phillips in New Limestone Review, in which he characterized the collection, not yet released, as more about love: it does look a bit more at what it means, I suppose, to believe in something like love, like the idea of commitment to love, once one is old enough to have seen how those commitments can turn out to be meaningless. How do we continue to believe in meaning, and why?”

I haven’t read the collection, just the one poem, but, yes, I can see that, instead of the speaker contemplating the human condition amidst nature, he’s bouncing off the solitude – a close, though not inevitable, neighbor of loneliness – in a more individual way. The dog’s loyalty that is merely need, the vulnerability, the estrangement, the horse in the storm, all take on different shades, and the pain comes to the fore.

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:

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.