Riding Westward

Poems

Carl Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks

Erasure

Brindled, where what’s left of the light finds him, he cowers in front of me: one way, as I remember it, that a body having grown accustomed to receiving punishment expresses

receipt, or a readiness for it, or—wild, bewildered—the desire to.

Above us, the usual branches lift unprophetically or not, depending: now spears; now arrows. There’s a kind of tenderness that makes more tender

all it touches. There’s a need that ruins. Dark. The horse comes closer. A smell to him like that of the earth when it’s been too long dry, drought-long, and the rain just starting, that first release, up, that the earth gives up like a name meant to be kept secret, or as when the memory of rescue has displaced the chance of it, unlooked-for, into

clearer view: like that exactly: oh he smells like the sweet wet earth, itself.

Bright World

—And it came to pass, that meaning faltered; came detached unexpectedly from the place I’d made for it, years ago, fixing it there, thinking it safe to turn away, therefore, to forget—hadn’t that made sense? And now everything did, but differently: the wanting literally for nothing for no good reason; the inability to feel remorse at having cast (now over some, now others), aegis-like, though it rescued no one, the body I’d all but grown used to waking inside of and recognizing, instantly, correctly, as mine, my body, given forth, withheld, shameless, merciless— for crying shame. Like miniature versions of a lesser gospel deemed, over time, apocryphal, or redundant—both, maybe—until at last let go, the magnolia flowers went on spilling themselves, each breaking open around, and then apart from, its stem along a branch of stems and, not of course in response, but as if so, the starlings lifting, unlifting, the black flash of them in the light reminding me of what I’d been told about the glamour of evil, in the light they were like that, in the shadow they became the other part, about resisting evil, as if resistance itself all this time had been but shadow, could be found that easily . . . What will you do? Is this how you’re going to live now? sang the voice in my head: singing, then silent—not as in desertion, but as when the victim suddenly knows his torturer’s face from before, somewhere, and in the knowing is for a moment distracted, has stopped struggling— And the heart gives in.

Torn Sash

To each his colors: mauve, and yellow. And

cruelty, at most, only what we thought it was: perhaps not unnecessary—there’s nothing useless—cruelty as a means of understanding, if not absolutely, then more forcefully than not love’s conditions—not clear,

but clearer. Stars, but only if refracted first, reassembled into lit beadwork, a net veiling the faceless water’s veiled face, what the waves, like a memory of

waves—like memory—keep at once refusing, and never quite let go of. . . Let a silence be

configured around what hurts most; around that, a style pitched subtly between distraction and an indifference, cool, ambitious, by which the events of story rise steadily,

now history, soon a legend that—forever, it seems—both revises itself and is itself revised: They agreed to swear to have remembered nothing—and this was true, or it was for one of them, though to

all appearances equally each forgave the other.

Falling

There’s a meadow I can’t stop coming back to, any more than I can stop calling it a sacred grove—isn’t that what it was, once? A lot of resonance, trees asway with declarations whose traced-on-the-air patterns the grasses also traced, more subtly, below. As for strangers: yes, and often, and—with few exceptions— each desperate either to win back some kingdom he’d lost, or to be, if only briefly, for once free of one. I did what I could for them. They did—what they did . . . It was as if we were rescuable, and worth rescuing, both, and the gods had noticed this—it was as if there were gods— and the sky meanwhile crowning every part of it, blue, a blue crown . . . There’s a meadow I still go back to. It’s just a meadow—with, sometimes, a stranger, passing through, the occasional tenderness, a hand to my chest, resting there, making me almost want to touch something, someone back. I can feel all the wrecked birds—lying huddled, slow-hearted, like so many stunned psalms, against one another—start to stir inside me, their bits of song giving way again to the usual questions: Why not stay awhile here forever? and Isn’t this what you keep coming for? and Is it? I’m tired of their questions. I’m tired, I say to them—as, with all the sluggishness at first of doing a thing they’d forgotten how to do, or forgotten to want to, or had only hoped to forget, they indifferently open, spread wide their interrogative, gray wings—

Sea Glass

It’s cold here, in the wind. Night fog. We can

leave, if you like. Moral landscapes, coming down as usual to a foreground all agony, pursuant joy, more agony, a lesson

insisting hypnotically, grass-like, wave-like, ever on itself—

this time, it’s not like that. The body is not an allegory—it can’t help that it looks like one, any more than it can avoid not being able to stay. All along, it was true: timing really

is everything. I’ve

loved this life. If it’s one thing to have missed the constellations for the stars themselves, it’s another, entirely,

to have never looked up. Some mistakes, given time, don’t seem mistakes— I’m counting on that; others, though perhaps a little bit still worth being sorry for,

lose force, we forget them mostly, or we say we have and, almost, we surprise

ourselves, even—we mean

what we say: It’s cold here. It’s dark. Follow me.

The Way Back

When he takes it by the neck, where the head should be, repositioning the body so the markings at the wings face up,

he does it with a gesture so absolute in its refusal to give anything of feeling away, that it seems at first like a brand of precision—his own brand—

and not indifference.

Prairie hawk, he says, or an owl, it’s possible. He speaks like a man who knows at

least a couple of things, maybe more than that, so when he says No animal—a knife did this, meaning the missing head,

I believe him, in that way that the effort to believe should

count as believing. Maggots

negotiate what’s left of it, making the feathers move very slightly, as if in a wind,

a small wind . . .

The urge to make meaning again—of everything, his gesture, the knife-work, the corrupted body, the body

—rises inside of me: as if it were sexual, that’s how it feels, and then,

like that, no less abruptly,

how it falls away. —When was I last this alone, with anyone? He looks up at me in that half-looking-just-above-and-

to-the-left-of-me way that’s probably a habit of his and, scooping the bird up in both hands, he brings it close to my face,

closer, until it hurts to look as much, almost, as it hurts not to. I can smell the rot of it; I can see the bird,

I can see his fingers around the bird—tight, not too tight, gentle—I can

almost see to where what happens next has happened.

Radiance versus Ordinary Light

Meanwhile the sea moves uneasily, like a man who suspects what the room reels with as he rises into it is violation—his own: he touches the bruises at each shoulder and, on his chest,

the larger bruise, star-shaped, a flawed star, or hand, though he remembers no hands, has tried—can’t remember . . .

That kind of rhythm to it, even to the roughest surf there’s a rhythm findable, which is why we keep coming here, to find it, or that’s what we say. We dive in and, as usual,

the swimming feels like that swimming the mind does in the wake of transgression, how the instinct to panic at first slackens that much more quickly, if you don’t look back. Regret,

like pity, changes nothing really, we say to ourselves and, less often, to each other, each time swimming a bit farther,

leaving the shore the way the water—in its own watered, of course, version of semaphore—keeps leaving the subject out, flashing Why should it matter now and Why,

why shouldn’t it, as the waves beat harder, hard against us, until that’s how we like it, I’ll break your heart, break mine.

The Smell of Hay

If I speak of suffering,

I don’t mean, this time, how it refines us,

I mean less its music than what is music-like

about it—a tendency to diminish to almost nothing, then

it swells back. The way memory can resemble steeple bells,

the play of them, the bell ropes having left

our hands. Or like snow resettling

inside a snow globe picked up, shaken,

set down. Then we shake it again. Lost excellence

is a different thing. Men who make

no exceptions. Men who, because they expect everywhere

hard surprises, have themselves grown hard—fazeable,

fazed by nothing. Touch, as a form of collision;

a belief in divinity as a form of nostalgia. Husk of a libretto

for the world as—I can say it now—I wanted it: a room

that swayed with rough courtship; my body not mine,

any more to ransom than to refuse. On the window’s

glass where the larger moths had beaten

against it, a fine powder, a proof by morning I had only

to blow across. And it flew. It scattered.

Ocean

Is the voyage over? This, the lull I’ve come to expect after smaller victories, stunning blows of defeat? Or is this but respite? The water has stopped its shifting, the ship follows suit— Aboard the ship, like a hand abandoning one gesture for another as the mind directs it, so as the captain commands them the sailors variously settle or, lifting themselves free from their having settled, they rise to an attention that proves obedience can be a form of love. He passes among them like a brightness, like what he is: a man for whom they’d do anything, they’re a theft in readiness, magnolia forced too soon open— split signatures, so many bruises on a freakish branch, nodding, windless—they obey him as if divinity were but one of several irreversible truths about him that each

had swallowed. They believe what he believes, without exception: There’s a courtesy to be found everywhere— worth finding, the slightest act, his removing the cross from around his neck before fucking a stranger, a grace almost— why not believe that, having watched him, having been instructed to? There’s a life after death. Each comes back to the world transformed, not human—some lesser animal. The captain has told them already he’ll return as a horse—and swiftly, steadily, they do imagine it: the captain rearing, his raised hooves casting about at the air before finding the earth again, crushing the grass each sailor hopes desperately he’ll come back as—has every intention to—a field and powerless, the captain a horse the field contains now, now doesn’t, may never again . . .

Excerpted from Riding Westward by Carl Phillips.
Copyright 2006 by Carl Phillips.
Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.