(“My Bluest Shirt” can be found in the poetry collection Double Shadow; it is also available online through Virginia Quarterly Review, where it was first published.)
Once, briefly, I lived in New York. It was the summer, and I spent a lot of time in the various city parks that draw large crowds of residents and tourists and also house robust duck populations. This is a problematic combination; a significant portion of the official signage in New York’s municipal parks is devoted to dissuading human visitors from feeding the ducks. My favorite tactic comes in the form of guarantees that the ducks, in the course of their park-dwelling lives, lack for nothing. Whatever they might need for proper nutrition and health, the signs assure, they can readily find and consume, on their own, right where nature plunked them.
Many of the poems in Double Shadow are like those ducks—they make their meaning without assistance, subsisting fully within and across the self-contained landscape of the book. They do not lean explicitly on current events or outside texts or pop culture. They do not need the noise of the world to do what they do. This makes it, then, all the more striking when a poem does stretch its hand outward in want. I am thinking, in particular, of “My Bluest Shirt,” a poem that makes use of a line adapted from Thomas Merton: “Bells, as if meant / to remind us.”
Merton, a Trappist monk and devoted pacifist, authored many books on Catholicism, spirituality, and the gentleness with which we ought to be treating one another. The line used by Carl Phillips in “My Bluest Shirt” comes from Merton’s small and fiery book Thoughts in Solitude, from 1956. The book’s early pages offer a defense of freedom of thought, or, as Merton puts it, “man’s inalienable solitude” at a time when “totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person.” Taken out of context, I might have a negative perspective on this solitude, thinking of punishment and deprivation, the forced isolation I typically do associate with totalitarianism. But Merton’s solitude is simply the space necessary to develop one’s own beliefs and fidelity to them, whatever they may be.
The line Phillips borrows and changes appears midway through the book. Merton writes, “Bells are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for this world.” In “My Bluest Shirt,” this line is fundamentally altered not only by truncation, but by the replacement of “are meant to remind us” with “as if meant to remind us.” Where Merton’s bells assure us of the existence of the divine and bring attendant solace, the bells in “My Bluest Shirt” ring hollower—they could be imbued with a heavy meaning, but instead suggest a failure of signification, a state of nothing much mattering. Just like the stream with its unknown name, the clumsy body’s poor attemptings, or the relationship understood only in terms of conquest and defeat.
“My Bluest Shirt” strikes me, in large part, as a poem about resigning yourself to the uselessness of so many of our venturings in this world, the ones that don’t work out how we had planned and leave us stranded. But within that resignation, it is also a poem that, by virtue of its own intense ruminations, celebrates the same cerebral possibilities that Merton defended. And so we see the speaker, in his bluest shirt, transformed at the end into an ocean: the ultimate in depth and distance, and in solitude.