Martha Collins on Carl Phillips’ “Meditation:”

from Carl PhillipsFrom the Devotions

by guest blogger poet Martha Collins


As when,
into the canyon that means,
whose name—translated—
means Without Measure, Sorrow

from the hand that,
for so long, has meant
but now—broken—gives in,

is released
the garland   /swag   /bouquet
look again—means

only so much as what it is:
kangaroo’s paw,
the grass called eel)

that he, impossibly, might catch it.

            I usually think about “Surrender” (the fourth section of a six-part poem called “Meditation:”) in terms of syntax. Comprised of a single sentence fragment, it creates the kind of knotty conundrum, typical of Phillips’ work, that I delight in. But it’s imagistically interesting too—partly because of the syntax.

Carl Phillips’ From the Devotions

            The sentence fragment can be reduced to this: “As when, into the canyon, from the hand is released the garland, that he, impossibly, might catch it.”  Not memorably imagistic, on the surface—but oddly so, if you think about it: why would someone release a garland into a canyonso that someone else might catch it? There’s a ghost of a tossed wedding bouquet here, but the venue is weirdly huge.

            What surrounds the core fragment is a lot of self-conscious “interpretation,” which on the surface would seem to make the action even less imagistic: “that means, / whose name—translated— / means”; “has meant”; “that—look, / look again—means. . . .” But I’d argue that in addition to directing and complicating the reader’s emotional and intellectual response, the interpretive language slows the delivery down to something comparable to slow motion: it takes considerably longer for that garland to get released on the page than it would in real time, and the image is perceived more deeply as a result.

Martha Collins’ Night unto Night

            And there’s a final sharpening. After all the interpretation, the garland (or whatever) “means // only so much as what it is.” And “what it is” translates to a very vivid image, though not a predictable one: who would put eucalyptus and eelgrass (which is aquatic) in the same arrangement? And “kangaroo’s paw”? Even if you have to use Google to find them, the red hand-like flowers startle.

Carl PhillipsFrom the Devotions,Graywolf Press, 1998.

Martha Collins’ latest book of poetry is Night unto Night, Milkwood Editions, 2018. Her next book,  Because What Else Could I Do, will appear in September 2019 from the University of Pittsburgh Press.