(You can find “Sky Coming Forward” in Phillips’ collection Double Shadow, or in the Fall 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review.)
I won’t call this poem deceptive — maybe just coy. The title “Sky Coming Forward” might initially suggest to you, as it did to me, some vast celestial mishap. After all, the sky is supposed to be far away, as we well know from children’s drawings that foreground everything but the air, or hackneyed descriptions of disaster (the sky is falling!). But as I read on, I came to see that the substance of the poem belies the title’s implication of upset or aggression. “How birches sway, for example,” the first line reads. “How they / tilt, on occasion….” All because of the movement of sky. The act here of the “sky coming forward” is in fact the ordinary and beauty-making phenomenon we typically call the wind.
The poem goes on to portray the wind as a force not of destruction, but of disruption — the difference here is key. This is a poem about breaks in stasis that are not to be feared, but simply a part of the onward turning of the world. Summer gives way to autumn and autumn to winter, or as the speaker puts it: “the leaves having stopped their falling. Or there / were no leaves left — left to fall.” The wind that presents itself in this poem is emblematic of uncertainty: we do not know if the leaves have decided they’ve fallen enough for one season, or simply run out of bodies to make the descent. This sense of the noncommittal also inheres in the figure of the lover, holding “[b]oth of his hands / upraised,” in a posture of openness to possibility. The poem tells us that one of the man’s hands is “tipped more / groundward, the other a lone bird lifting, as if from / a wood gone steep with twilight.” And, again, we see the “sky coming forward,” the wind that carries the waffling hand, like a bird, up and away from the changing forest of the body.
Whatever is between these lovers then drops away like that exodus of bird, that falling of leaves. Phillips writes of an “abrupt yet gentle breaking of the storm / inside me,” describing the swell of human connection as “just the rings that form then disappear / around where some latest desire — lost, or abandoned — / dropped once and disturbed the water.” A fierceness shoots through the space between two people, but this force cannot be grasped or slowed, and it leaves them changed only at first — only until the world reverts, in its endless cyclical nature, to the way things were before. This is how we might experience memories of a brief love, or how we might experience the wind: forceful, fleeting, unable to truly go through us, moving away and existing on its own. This is how, too, we might experience the “third life” the poem conjures at its end, the unseeable possibility of some other way of being in the world, “taking its own / slow dreamlike hold, even now — blooming, in spite of us?”