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Carl Phillips


Dirt Being Dirt


The orchard was on fire, but that didn’t stop him from slowly walking

straight into it, shirtless, you can see where the flames have

foliaged – here, especially – his chest.  Splashed by the moon,

it almost looks like the latest proof that, while decoration is hardly

ever necessary, it’s rarely meaningless: the tuxedo’s corsage,

fog when lit scatteredly, swift, from behind – swing of a torch, the lone

match, struck, then wind-shut…How far is instinct from a thing

like belief?  Not far, apparently.  At what point is believing so close

to knowing, that any difference between the two isn’t worth the fuss,

finally?  A tamer of wolves tames no foxes, he used to say, as if avoiding

the question.  But never meaning to.  You broke it.  Now wear it broken.



Ghost Choir


What injures the hive injures the bee, says Marcus Aurelius.  I say

not wanting to hurt another, this late, should maybe more than

count, still, as a form of love. Be wild. Bewilder. Not that they

hadn’t, of course, known unkindnesses, and been themselves

unkind.  When the willow’s leaves, back again, unfold all along

their branches, the branches routinely in turn brushing then lifting


away from the pond’s face, it’s too late. Last night I doubted as I’ve

not doubted myself in years: knowing a thing seemed worthless

next to knowing the difference between many things, the fox from

the hounds, persuasion from the trust required to fall asleep beside

a stranger; who I am, and how I treated you, and how you feel. So

that it almost seemed they’d either forgotten or agreed without


saying so to pretend they had. Did you know there’s an actual plant

called honesty, for its seedpods, how you can see straight through?

Though they’d been told the entire grove would die eventually, they

refused to believe it. The face in sleep, like a wish wasted. To the wings

at first a slight unsteadiness; then barely any. What if forgetting’s not

like that – instead, stampeding, panicked, just a ghost choir: of legends,


and rumors, of the myths forged from memory – what’s true, and isn’t –

that we make of ourselves and, even worse, of others. Not the all-but-

muscular ache, the inner sweep of woundedness; no. Not tonight. Say

the part again about the bluer flower, black at the edges. I’ve always

loved that part. Skull of an ox, from which a smattering of stars

keeps rising. How they decided never to use surrender as a word again.




Some say the point of war

is to make the need for tenderness


more clear.  Some say that’s an effect of war, the way

beauty can be: Homer’s Iliad, for example; or –

many centuries later – how the horse’s head,


to protect it in combat, would be fitted

with a shaffron, a strip of steel,

sometimes mixed with copper, all of it


hammer-worked, parts detailed

in gold.  I love you, as I’ve


always loved you, one man says,

meaning it, to another.  That doesn’t make


love true.  This only needs to be troubling

if we want it to be.  Our minds are

as the days are, dark


or bright, says Homer, the words like coral-bells

in a pot made to look like the head of an ancient god –

a sea-god, moss for seaweed across the old


god’s face.  To believe in ritual in the name

of hope, there lies disaster.




                                And turned to him.


And took his hand – the scarred one; I could

feel the scars...Little crowns.  Mass


coronation.  For by then all the lilies on the pond had opened.

-from Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) selected by Spring 2021 Guest Editor Cyrus Cassells. 

Carl Phillips is the author of 15 books of poetry, most recently Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) and Wild Is the Wind (FSG, 2018), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, a Lambda Literary Award, the PEN/USA Award for Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets, for which he was Chancellor from 2006 to 2012. Phillips served as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets 2010-2020. He has also written two prose books: The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf, 2004); and he has translated the Philoctetes of Sophocles (Oxford University Press, 2004). Phillips is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.

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