Carl Phillips: “How They Woke, Finally, in a Bed of Ferns”

Photographers Unknown, Twelve Men Seated

How they woke, finally, in a bed of ferns — horsetail ferns.
How they died singing. All night, meanwhile, as if somehow
the fox’s mouth that so much of this life has amounted to had
briefly unshut itself — and the moth that’s trapped there,
unharmed, gone free — a snow fell; the snow-filled street
seemed a toppled column, like the one in the mind called
doubt, or that other one,
                                              persuasion, the broken one, in three
clean pieces …Well, it’s morning, now. Out back, the bamboo
bows and stiffens. Thoughts in a wind. Thoughts like (but
nobody saying it): Nobody, I think, knows me better by
now than you do. Or like: The bamboo, bowing, stiffening,
seems like nothing so much as, in this light, competing forms
of betrayal that, given time, must surely cancel each other
out, close your eyes; patience; wait. Maybe less the foliage
than the promise of it. Less that shame exists, maybe, than that
the world keeps saying it does, know it, hold on tight to it, as if
the world were rumor, how every rumor
                                                                           rings true, lately.
When I’m ashamed, I make a point of reminding myself what
is shame but to have shown — to have let it show — that variety
of love that goes hand in hand with having wished to please
and, in pleasing, for a while belong. So shame can, like love, be
an eventual way through? There’s a minor chord sparrows make
with doves that’s not the usual business — it’s not sad at all, any of it:
this always waiting for what I’ve always waited for; this not being
able to assign to what’s missing some shape, a name; this body
neither antlered nor hooved — brave too, this body, unapologetic…

Carl Phillips, Blow It Back

Born in Everett, Washington in 1959, Carl Phillips is an American writer and poet. As a child of a military family, he moved frequently around the United States in his formative years until his family settled in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Phillips earned his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University and Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Massachusetts. He continued his education at Boston University, where he earned a Master of Arts in Creative Writing.

Along with other black poets such as John Keene, Natasha Trethewey, and Major Jackson, Carl Phillips was a member of the Dark Room Collective. Founded after the funeral of James Baldwin in 1987, this collective began as an intergenerational reading series which hosted and cultivated the work of black poets of various aesthetic movements. Many of the current leading figures in the poetic movement had their beginnings with the Dark Room Collective.

Beginning as a teenager, Phillips wrote poetry until his entry into Harvard University on a scholarship, where he began to study Latin and Greek. It was not until 1990, while coming to terms with his gay identity, that he resumed his poetic writing. A classicist by training, Phillips often uses classical forms in his work and often references classical art, music, and literature. He received critical acclaim early in his career with the publication of his debut collection, “In the Blood”, which won the Samuel Morse Poetry Prize in 1992.

Carl Phillips’s second collection, “Cortège”, was nominated in 1995 for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Six years later, his collections, “Pastoral” in 2000 and “The Tether” in 2001, were both well received, with “Pastoral” winning the 2001 Lambda Literary Award for Best Poetry. Two of Phillips’s works, the 2009 “Speak Low” and the 2011 “Double Shadow”, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, were finalists for the National Book Award.

In addition to over a dozen volumes of poetry, Carl Phillips has published works of criticism and translation. Two collections of essays, “Coin of the Realm: Essays on Life and the Art of Poetry” and “The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination”, were published by Graywolf Press in 2004 and 2014, respectively. Phillips’s translation of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes” was published in 2003 by the Oxford University Press.

Before teaching English at the university level, Phillips taught Latin at several high schools in Massachusetts. He is currently a Professor of English at Saint Louis’s Washington University, where he also teaches Creative Writing. Phillips was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006 and, since 2011, has served as a judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Carl Phillips’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress. He is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets Prize, and a Pushcart Prize, and he has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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