A Little Moonlight
Given inconstancy, the resistless
affair that has been my body (as if
there were no place to go from anywhere except
deeper, into those spaces the hand makes by
tugging the flesh, where it is part-able,
more open, or as if I believed, utterly, what
legend says about violation — how it leads
to prophecy, the god enters the body, the mouth
cracks open, and a mad fluttering, which
is the future, fills the cave, which is
desire, luck and hazard, hazard and luck),
I should perhaps regret more. But it’s grown
so late: see how dark, outside?
Suspecting, even then,
that the best way to avoid being
broken by flaw would be to shape my life
around it — flaw coming slowly
to define the self, as shells make of the glass
that holds them a little kingdom
of sea — I followed him, and have only once
looked back. Oh, I contain him
as the lion’s chest contains the arrow
that death displaces, effect always mattering
more than cause: pull the arrow free —
brandish it. By now it must weigh
almost nothing . . .
I agree, to hope for a thing is to believe in it,
or at least to want to. When does belief
become expectation? Like committing
a crime, confessing to it, and thinking
confession might equal apology, mistaking
apology for to wipe clean away,
you turn your face to me. — What?
Trees in a wind. Their mixed
invitation of leaves flourishing as if unstoppable,
as if foliage were the greater part of it, the part
I could love best, or should learn to say I do
more often. Tell me why, when what I loved
from the start was how eventually each leaf must go.
Carl Phillips 2005
Starting a new year, intent is incredibly powerful. This week is a clear opportunity to reimagine, to say the things that have never been said, to look forward. And so with this Poem of the Week, I want to tell you all why I write an extra essay each week and offer you a poem that reflects the thoughtfulness occassioned by a new year. I will start with my intent. Number one, I have this blog because I enjoy it. It keeps me working through my Norton Anthology, helps me with my writing, and provides a low-pressure environment in which I can explore poetry. It's so easy to get caught up in whatever trivialities pull me away from my passion. The PotW helps me stay engaged.
More importantly, though, I want to share poetry. At a New Year's party yesterday, a man told me that he couldn't remember the last time he'd read a poem. I was so sad that I wanted to take a book off of the shelf right then and there and read one to him, but I supposed that presumptious and forward. Perhaps I should have, though; he was an english major in college long ago. It saddens me to hear to hear how little poetry most people have read. I of course don't expect most to feel as I do, but people don't have to totally comprehend or love an art form to appreciate its beauty. I hope that the PotW helps you register poetry's deepness and richness. I hope that it gives you a chance to slow down and contemplate in your busy life. I hope that it provides you with an extra spot of beauty. I hope that it makes poetry less scary. Even in some of my upper level lit classes, people were at a loss when confronted with a poem. But poetry ought not be scary. I hope that you can see that exploring a poem is as simple as slowing down, noticing the words on the page, and asking questions. A poem is not scary, but beautiful. I hope that it gives you some tools to approach a poem with, even if those tools are thought structures, ways of thinking about poems.
I originally hoped that it would be a forum for many to discuss, but I think that I have discouraged this by writing such long responses. Comment if you'd like, but I think that I instead hope merely that you react. This is not an academic blog wherein we are having a thesis-oriented, utterly informed discussion. The PotWs are my personal thoughts about a poem (and other ramblings that perhaps provoke you. Though long-winded, I intend it as a gift of beauty and an offering of what I love. All together, I hope that the Poem of the Week is a personal, stimulating, free-form, beautiful ramble for you and me.
So that done, we have the chance to look at this narrator's long, beautiful ramble. I see this poem as a collection of musings. The three section structure makes it light and pensive. Rather than preaching, it merely wonders, explores. I think that many can probably relate to these kinds of thoughts, for the narrator reflects on flaws, spirituality, hope and most of all growth. I get the sense here that these are little trains of thought that the narrator somehow chose to put into a poem form. They are ripples in the speaker's stream of consciousness, important enough to set apart in a poem. They appear to come from different sense of time; I suppose, then, that the question is whether they achieve unity or not. Let us look at each alone, and explore any sense of unity at the end.
The first section has a marvelous syntactical structure. Without the parentheses, it would read, "Given inconstancy, the resistless / affair that has been my body... I should perhaos regret more. But it's grown / so late: see how dark, outside?" He muses that he ought to perhaps regret more because life has been bumpy, not as expected. His response to his own question is so casual, so effortless that it reminds me of a dear, old friend so comfortable he doesn't need anything other than metaphors. It's too late to regret anything, he sighs.
If the frame-sentence structure is so casual, then, the parenthetic lines' strength makes them almost tangible. Indeed, the images unify emotional and erotic bodies, powerfully coiling body and soul. The first "as if" postulate, read with the body equating emotions, tells of acute introspection, as if looking inside is a physical act, pulling apart the flesh to see where the blood is flowing. This resonates deeply with me, for I think that introspection is difficult and essential and as literally vital as pulling apart one's flesh.
The second "as if" again splits between an emotional and a physical body, this time moving into a more erotic realm. By using the words "violation," "cave," and "desire," Phillips is almost explicitly sexual. The sexuality animates spirituality, though, again unifying body and soul. The violation brings on prophecy, which, god-like, "fills the cave." Thus, a mystic experience is as strong as rape, as climax, as the deepest physical intimacy.
I have a hard time reconciling these postulates with inconstancy. I suppose that introspection and spirituality are inconstant, for they have to be struggled with daily. This explanation isn't quite satisfactory to me; if you have any ideas, feel free to post a comment or email me!
The second part is my favorite for its empowerment. The speaker discusses how to deal with flaws, and his frank, refreshing answer is to embrace them. Deeply. Flaws, he implies, provide the structure over which we can grow and heal. Flaws are thus a kind of skeleton, but we must recognize them in order to develop around them. He confidently says that we, like shells in a fishtank, can make a "kingdom / of sea" by seeing the container, the flaw, as beautiful. Linking flaws and a fishtank, too, implies that a flaw is a sort of container, and, true, flaws often limit. Imperfections like fear, anger, defensiveness and more insulate us from one-another. Indeed, "limitation" is in the thesaurus under flaw.
The syntax, true to stream-of-consciousness, interrupts this section as well. Without the dashes, its first stanza reads, "suspecting, even then, that the best way to avoid being broken by a lfaw would be to shape my life around it, I followed him, and have only once looked back." Who is this him? I suggest that it is perhaps an inside advisor who makes mistakes, what my mom would call "the right mistake." It strikes me now that following one's flaws is another way of being true to oneself. Thus, the narrator talks of living and acting from truth. There are few greater lessons.
I love that this section is so empowered; the speaker equates himself to a lion, and bravely announces that one ought to brandish the flaw once one has internalized it. Be proud of what you are, good and bad! Brandishing a flaw also implies owning it and controlling it. When you go to wave the flaw to the world, then, the flaw is probably diminished. It is humble, too, expressed in the ellipses' trailing off and the fragmented syntax. I love this stanza; it convinces me that I would want to be friends with this speaker, whoever he is.
Beginning, "I agree to hope for a thing is to believe in it, / or at least to want to," the third section addresses the logical leaps we make in hoping, believing, apologizing, and redeeming. I write "leap" because these transformations are perhaps problematic. The speaker has a good point, after all. I know that I have jumped from belief to expectation before; this poem articulates a normal human tendency. By putting words to this action, "A Little Moonlight" rehearses another of poetry's functions. When it puts words to varying human tendencies, emotions, situations etc., it makes us aware of them, allowing us to move forward.
I want to finally notice, then, the great exhale ending this poem. The narrator's quiet thoughts about trees look with love and sweetness on death, on endings, on passing away, and I find this so appropriate for the beginning of a new year. We all have the chance to love our own little lives and selves even as they are passing away, or perhaps because they are. For me, I feel that I am growing, growing bigger, growing older, growing wiser and happier and sadder all at once; I am - we all are - growing away from who we used to be, but that is the thing to love most. Just like the beloved leaves that will tumble off of the tree, so we are tumbling into something new every second, and we can love the fluttering leaves and we can love the gusting wind. Love. The word falls onto the page.