Two Carl Phillips poems, “Almost Tenderly” and “Fascination,” won’t leave me. I’ve memorized them, talked to friends about them, written about them a little (here & here & here). Both are from Phillips’s collection Double Shadow and one, “Almost Tenderly,” is also included in Kenyon’s Radiance Versus Ordinary Light: Selected Poems of Carl Phillips.
My body has moved on to other reading: a novel set in the Arena Football League, scholarly studies regarding Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, back issues of The Nation, this month’s Cosmo. And other tasks: wrestling with the kids, singing with the choir, calculating 4.15 percent at 30 years.
But my mind can’t escape the Phillips. It’s become trapped in his poems. Or is it the poems that have become trapped in it? The actors, for sure, are trapped. “Almost Tenderly”’s trapped actor is a man; “Fascination”’s is a fox. Their physical predicaments are much the same: the man is “stripped; beaten” and “[h]is wounds were fresh; still open.” The fox, literally caught in a trap, tries to gnaw off its own leg—we (I) imagine the matted fur, the leg’s innards splayed over the tibia. The fox’s bloody teeth.
While the fox, unlike the man, does try to escape, neither, it seems, will make it out alive. The fox “consigns…itself,” stretching out to die; for the man, we’re not given quite enough to be entirely sure of his state—via circumstantial clues, we can guess he may be agitated—but even were he healthy enough in body and spirit to fight or flee, and assuming he would want to, with whom would he fight, to where would he flee? Like the fox, who “stops trying” not just in the dark but “beneath it” (wherever deep and low that might be), the man is utterly isolated, entirely alone. The poem offers him no way out.
The man might be a sacrifice, might be Jesus, might be Everyman—are they all the same?—or maybe he’s simply a man in a certain type of club: note the hidden entrance (to the poem, which is the club, which is the universe), the music, the voyeurism, and, in the air, love and corruption, and, breaking the darkness, flashes of light.
Maybe the fox is a man. Who among us who suffers hasn’t wanted to “mutilate its own body to at last get free”? But then, really, how innocent is the fox? Doesn’t the fox cross the road to ravage the chicken? Isn’t it the fox we don’t want guarding the henhouse? Maybe the question isn’t about we who suffer, but we who have caused suffering. Who among us hasn’t wanted to “mutilate its own body to at last get free”?
There is a crass joke that (mostly) young men make about how they’d rather gnaw off their arm than wake the (coyote) ugly girl they hooked up with last night. Isn’t a coyote a fox? In junior high, in San Francisco, a fox was a hottie, though hottie wasn’t yet a term. Fox, as a term of hotness, was gender neutral. Boys and girls both were foxy. “Coyote ugly,” also, wasn’t yet, I don’t think, a term, nor the bar with that name, which began in the ’90s, nor the movie about the bar, which was made in 2000.
A red fox, the type of fox in “Fascination,” I’m told, can be easily confused with a coyote. But you can tell the difference by tail and voice. The fox has a white-tipped tail; the coyote’s is dark. And the fox’s tail is raised when it runs, while the coyote’s is lowered. As for voice, the coyote howls and barks before it begins its yipping calls; no fox howls.
There is, at the end of “Fascination”’s first stanza, what reminds me of closing time at the bar:
overlooked, last round of desire–
unclaimed, searching …
The lines refer back to “a kind / of moon,” which itself refers back to “the shape of the light getting cast / upward.” The scene of the first stanza is a room made “cavernous” by a candle “[g]uttering in its stone urn from a century, by now, / too far away.” The image of the (kind of) moon transitions the poem from the first stanza’s cavernous room to the second stanza’s fox in the trap, beneath the dark, a place where “still… / no moonlight ever quite conquers.”
If moonlight in some sense means desire, then we can possibly connect the fox’s eventual lack of it to that which blocks it: “the crossed limbs of cathedral pines.” That phrase gets its own line, and no wonder. The depth of it startles. Both adjectives, both nouns, supplemental to the descriptive work they do, mean, richly. That is, literally, we understand that some trees are blocking the moonlight. But each word’s meanings also reverberate back and forward throughout the poem: Cross(ed), limb(s), cathedral, pine(s).
When is a cigar just a cigar?
When a fox is just a fox.
But isn’t a fox almost a coyote? I had, up there with the lines that remind me of closing time at the bar, a theory about this, but I lost it somewhere between there and here. I’ll finish by not promising I won’t return for more about these two poems. I haven’t begun exploring the central image in “Almost Tenderly,” an image that, even more than the fox and its gnawing, more than the cavernous room with its guttering candle, more than any other image in my life at the moment, keeps returning, front and center in my mind.
And Phillips’s syntax. And structures.
And these lines: “But / the man was a brokenness like any other: moving / until it fails to move.”