The Hollow Men

:::this is the way the world ends:::

Poetry Post: Carl Phillips

Here’s a poem by Carl Phillips, one that I’ve especially admired, from his book The Rest of Love.

-Shotts

Custom

There is a difference it used to make,
seeing three swans in this versus four in that
quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its
effects were. Declarations of war, the timing fixed upon for a sea-departure; or,
about love, a sudden decision not to, to pretend instead to a kind
of choice. It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,
something that could know better, and should, therefore–but does not:
a form of faith, you’ve said. I call it sacrifice–an instinct for it, or a habit at first, that
becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have
of what was true. You shouldn’t look at me like that. Like one of those saints
on whom the birds once settled freely.

3 Comments

  1. Jeff,
    This is a terrific and reflective-provoking (I know that’s not grammar) poem. I find it more accessible than some of Phillips other poems I’ve read. My favorite part is the part about strays, something that should know better. It makes me think of Conrad’s Lord Jim – this eternal optimism and belief in redemption that may only be setting us up for a sacrifice. It is something I think about a lot, since I tend toward a sort of eternal optimism, with a healthy dash of realism. I feel like I should know better, but opt for the sacrifice anyway.
    Thanks for the poem. Let me know if I’m radically misinterpretting, since it is written by what amounts to a friend of yours. It also makes me think a bit about capitalism, maybe since I heard a program on NPR about Adam Smith, who outlined economic theories in his The Wealth of Nations, but whose moral writings have been vastly ignored. I often want to resist the idea that society is largely driven by a desire to have more or lots, and that those with lots have the best opportunity to get more, but I find that resisting it is like trying to withstand an avalanche. Maybe that’s the tendency toward sacrifice, or maybe I would call it faith.
    Ned

  2. Ned–

    Glad you enjoyed “Custom.” Yes, it’s probably one of Carl Phillips’s more readable poems, though I think there are others in this strain. His syntax is what makes his poetry difficult but also resonant. The strange hesitation and word order comes right from Greek and Latin, and I think it beautifully enacts the mind in the process of thought–sometimes free flowing, sometimes halting, often erotic, and jagged.

    I love the notion in the poem that the poem itself–art–becomes what is left of what is true between the poet and the larger society, yes, which used to take stock in omens, but also between the speaker and the “you” in the poem.

    And I’m interested in how the poet becomes this sounding board for difficulty. It seems the other person in the poem assumes these omens easily alight on the poet, that art is a matter of letting the birds settle freely upon him. The speaker of the poem seems to rebuke that thought, and suggests that art is more a sacrifice, an intense difficulty to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things.

    Part of my reading of the poem, at least.

    –Shotts

  3. Jeff,
    This is helpful, though I feel I got a lot of what you’re saying, with the exception the the language elements. I think that the idea of difficulty in the struggle to find meaning resonantes. And I was conscious that some of what I said was “bringing” things to the work.
    Thanks,
    Ned

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