The Sea Sings: More Questions for Carl Phillips’s “Almost Tenderly”

Pablo Tanguay
October 29, 2013
Comments 1

In the poem “Almost Tenderly,” from Double Shadow and also Kenyon’s Radiance Versus Ordinary Light: Selected Poems by Carl Phillips, “a man, stripped, beaten” is on the shore, the sea singing a calming song but not to him. The sea sings its song “as if to the man,” but “in fact,” the speaker tells us, the sea is singing “to no one.”

Why would the sea sing, let alone so (almost) tenderly, if not to the man? Is it simply in the nature of the sea to sing? Or is its singing a kind of cruelty? Even if we don’t like the cruelty angle, if we think maybe it’s simply in the nature of a man to hear a song in the sea, the poem makes clear it’s the sea doing the singing rather than the man doing the hearing. Is nature mean?

But nature? Where is nature in the poem? Yes, there is a sea, a shore. But the scene seems to be set on a kind of movie sound stage. The first lines of the poem have led us in. Once in, there appears to be no way out. The scene is utterly cinematic, in the cleanest manner. There is nothing extraneous. Nothing smells. But who’s making the movie? Who’s determining, for example, the quality of the sea’s singing (“tenderly, almost”). Maybe I mean, who is the poem’s God?

Perhaps romantically, we think of the sea as depthless. But depthless is a curious word, meaning, on the one hand, unfathomably deep, and, on the other, shallow, superficial. The word means what it means and also the opposite of what it means. If there is not yet a literary term for this phenomenon, I’ll call it a Carl Phillips, and I’ll stretch its appropriate range to whole passages, entire poems. Not the shallow, superficial part—there is hardly anything superficial in Phillips; I mean the saying of the thing and the thing’s opposite in a single word, phrase, passage, poem. Paradox, yes, sing to me. 

In the poem, the man seems to hear the song, even as it’s not intended for him (so the speaker says). After the sea has sung a couple lines, the speaker tells us “But the man said nothing.” The man “speaks,” actually, only once, and only, in the poem’s last line, via his wounds: “Where the light fell on them, they flashed, like the sea.” The man is, what? A medium, via his wounds, for the expression of light?

Again, who is the poem’s God?

The image of the man is still, in my mind, moving (still and moving, really—in my mind, I mean, he’s standing still on the beach, physically, yet moving, emotionally), though the poem tells me it won’t be forever. I compare the man, as I think the poem allows/forces me, to Jesus, the ultimate one-who-suffers (and whose wounds, exposed above the pulpit, express the light/Light). And yet the poem tells me that everything broken, eventually, “fails to move—the way, over time, suffering / makes no difference.” 

Can that be true?

Just how long is “over time”? 

When I’m dying, will the sea sing? 

To whom?

One thought on “The Sea Sings: More Questions for Carl Phillips’s “Almost Tenderly”

  1. Wounds arouse our sympathy but if the wound carries with it a heroic significance we may acknowledge the wounded as victor, in that he can now be placed in the bisexual bin which has sacrosanct status and offers to the reader a poetic stance.

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