2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Carl Phillips, Double Shadow
November 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
…Brokenness, you do surprise me –
here I could have sworn I’d lost my taste for you,
you being an accident like all the others that, one
by one, constellate, first becoming a life, and then
as if the only one, as if no other were possible. Since
when does that make a world? Whose business
but mine is it if now, when I grieve, I grieve
this way: crown in hand, little flowers of gold?
from “Glory On” (p. 34)
Some people listen to the same song, over and over again, when emotion overwhelms them and they seek comfort in verse and song. Others burst out in a melody either borrowed or composed from the vibrating life strings. For myself, I turn to poetry when I need an emotional salve. Although I had planned to write a review of Carl Phillips’ Double Shadow for days now, perhaps it was fate or (mis)fortune that I had the book image saved and the labels ready for me to write of the nearly three dozen poems that appear in this slender 58 page collection before I received word this morning that my maternal grandmother had died this morning after battling dementia for over three years. I re-read several of the poems in Phillips’ collection, as several deal with that “double shadow” that constitutes life, death, and the struggles between eros and thanatos, until I read the final half of “Glory On” and I found something that resonated closely with my own situation.
Later, I will write more about the importance of my grandmother in my life as a reader, perhaps after her funeral Monday, but I do want to look at the lines I quote above. Although I had thought I was long prepared for this day, it still surprised me with its sudden ache. As a child, I remember vividly three family members dying within two years of one another. I recall the heartache and confusion at learning over and over again what death is. There were times that I would come close into sinking into that pattern outlined above, where such trauma “first becoming a life, and then/as if the only one, as if no other were possible.” Phillips nails it here for me, that peril of fetishizing loss and grief. But how we deal with grief can change with time and what business is it, I find myself asking in response to the narrator here, how I grieve? Maybe it’s best to celebrate the release that has taken place from that most hideous of terminal illnesses (some may argue cancer is worse, but would you want to lose your personality and what makes you you rather than dealing with acute physical pain and discomfort? ‘Tis a horrible choice), as what made my grandmother herself had mostly died in the weeks and months before her body shut down due to further destruction of the brain tissue. “Crown in hand, little flowers of gold;” doesn’t that sound as though there is some vague optimism through the grief at hand?
Phillips’ other poems also speak of the complexities of life and our frustrations, fears, and hopes. Take for instance the imagery of bells in “The Heat of the Sun”:
…Maybe the mistake
never to make mistakes is the only
pattern we get to leave behind us: no bells – just
a calmness, after; the air so clear, we forget what
hurt so much and, in forgetting it, think it’s disappeared.
Bells ring to mark special occasions: marriages, ceremonies, calls to worship, death tolls. What happens when they stop ringing and the air is calm? Phillips suggests ambiguously that there is a forgetting, whether that is for good or nil is up to the reader to decide. Something else to consider, I suppose.
There are so many other examples that I could quote to illustrate Phillips’ adroit use of metaphor to reflect upon the nuances in our lives. Lines such as this taken from the first poem in the collection, “First Night at Sea”:
…As affection was never
twilight, but a light of its own, blindness not at all
a gift to be held close to the chest, stubborn horse
meanwhile beating wild beneath it, stubborn heart,
a dark, where was a brightness, a bright where dark.
The dualities here between light/twilight and blindness/sight set the tone for the remaining poems. Phillips does not suggest answers, only possibilities. This, however, is more than sufficient, as it allows the reader to adapt these lines to suit his/her needs. When beginning (or ending) the grieving process, there is some hope to be found in “a bright where dark,” or conversely, a sense that the narrator can sympathize when there is “a dark, where was a brightness.” Our emotions, as Phillips reminds us in this excellent but short collection, are ours to treat as we may. Sometimes poetry serves to remind us of those conflicts and contradictions that dwell within us. Double Shadow certainly does this and I am grateful that I had this in my possession when I learned the expected sad news this morning.