My favorite poems almost answer the questions they raise, but not quite, even when they sound like they do. They tend toward resolution but don’t always reach it, even, again, when they sound like they do. I like paradox. I like poems that are smarter than me, a little more cruel, a little more generous. And fierce. I do like a fierce poem. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” is the fiercest poem I know. It was the fiercest poem I knew even before Henri Cole and the OED helped me understand that Donne’s speaker is imploring, so as to remain chaste, God to rape him.
Carl Phillips’s poem “Almost Tenderly,” from Double Shadow and also Kenyon’s Radiance Versus Ordinary Light: Selected Poems of Carl Phillips, is fourteen lines, split into two seven-line stanzas. Fourteen lines is the standard length of a sonnet.
The first stanza begins with “It” and ends with the enjambed “let.” The second stanza begins with “love” and ends with “sea.” Were I a certain type of reader, I might make something of the fact that these four words, the words that bracket the poem’s major sections, make the phrase, “It let love sea,” which can be heard as “It let love see.” But I’m not that type of reader, hardly ever.
The “It” the poem begins with—what is it? For a long time, I didn’t think to ask. The “It” was simply the poem’s setting. I mean, you have a beach, a beaten man, stripped bare, on the beach, and the sea, which seems to, but does not, sing to the man. So: a beach, a man, the sea. The “It,” however, is none of that. Too lulled by the singing of the sea, too startled by the image itself, I didn’t notice.
But the poem’s central image so unsettled me—the naked, beaten man on the beach, his “fresh” wounds “still open,” “flashing” like the sea that is singing but not to him—I wanted to interrogate it. Beginning again at the beginning, I noticed the poem’s syntax working to keep me from doing exactly that. “It had the heft of old armor,” the poem begins. And then, a few beats later, “It swung apart / like a door.” And, finally, in the third line, “Inside it, the sea was visible….” All those “It”’s without an explanation of what “It” is. What we do get, though, is an indication of its “heft” and ability to both protect and be opened: “It […was] like a breastplate / of bronze; like a shield, on hinges. It swung apart / like a door.” Writing it down now, the subterfuge seems impossible to miss—all those similes diverting attention from the thing itself.
But still, what is the “It”? And why so unwilling to name it? Is it a diorama? Some kind of Joseph Cornell box? Or maybe it doesn’t matter, the body being less important than what the body holds. And here, the body holds an image that tells the story—The Story?—that “suffering / makes no difference.” A breastplate protects the heart. Paul, to the Ephesians: “Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.”
What’s in my heart? Is it “…a brokenness like any other; moving / until it fails to move”?
And the sea that sings to no one? What can contain it?
And what might “It” let love see?