weekend-reads Almost Tenderly; Conquest; Tell Me a Story; Next Stop, Arcadia; The Life You Save

Carl Phillips

Almost Tenderly

It had the heft of old armor—like a breastplate
of bronze; like a shield, on hinges. It swung apart
like a door. Inside it, the sea was visible—the sea
and, on the shore, a man: stripped; beaten. Very
gently—tenderly, almost—as if to the man, to
calm him, but in fact to no one, the sea was singing:
Here, in the deepening blue of our corruption, let

love be at least one corruption we chose together.
But the man said nothing. Why not call restlessness
our crown, and our dominion, sang the sea . . . But
the man was a brokenness like any other: moving,
until it fails to move—the way, over time, suffering
makes no difference. His wounds were fresh; still open.
Where the light fell on them, they flashed, like the sea.

 

Conquest

Speaking to himself, I think, not me, You have wanted
more than was yours to wish for
, he said—as if even
to wishing the laws of modesty and excess could be applied,
and should be. We slept. I dreamed.
We’d sworn
never to do harm; then sworn instead to keep trying hard
not to—A kind
                              of progress . . .

• •

                                                  In the dream, he was powerful:
a hawk,
          or hawk-like—this time, easily distinguishable
from the gentler animals and that relentlessness with which,
like beaten slaves by now
                                        used to it, they rise, and they fall.

 

Tell Me a Story

Maybe this is the prettiest time for it, each tree
but a variation on the governing form, here,
a leaflessness more like death than sleep, less like
singing than remembering what it meant, once,
to sing — and the memory, enough. Though it seems
too early, already there are buds on the star-magnolia —
so soft, they feel like a buck’s first set of antlers,
just beginning to show . . . When I touch them,

something rises inside me, that I at first mistake
for gratitude, and then for regret. It descends, then
settles, like a flock of waterfowl on water, the particular
beauty that attends oblivion attending them also, in
their back-and-forthing, and even after that, when,
as I understand it, they’ll have grown very still.

 

Next Stop, Arcadia

There’s a man asking to be worshipped only.
He looks inconsolable; rugged; like those
once-popular, but hardly seen anymore,
portraits—depictions, really—of Jesus.
There’s another man. He wants to be
flogged while naked and on all fours—
begging for it; no mercy; he says Make me
beg
.
        There’s a field nearby. Stretch of field—
like the one they say divides prayer from
absolute defeat. Here’s where the pack-horse,
scaring at nothing visible, broke its tether;
no sign of it since. You know this field:
a constant stirring inside an otherwise great
stillness that never stops surrounding it,
the way memory doesn’t, though memory
is not just a stillness,
                                    but a field that stirs.
The two men—they’ve gone nowhere.
They’ve got questions. Like Which one’s
the field you can actually remember?
and
Which one’s the one you’re only imagining
now—standing inside it, staying there,
stay,

        until it looks like home? Who are they
to be asking questions? You look from one man
to the other. You keep looking—but between
submission, or the seeming resistance that,
more often than not, lately, comes just
before it,
                which is better? It’s hard to decide:
the ugliness of weeping, or the tears themselves?

 

The Life You Save

After the pinefields, there’s the marsh—you can
see it
          from here. And after that? History
ending; myth, as it starts
                                        to stir. And after that?

• •

After that, just the turning back again. Nothing you
won’t know already:
                                 the pinefield; the marsh—

And the reeds, too? The reeds that grow there?

• •

Yes,
        and the reeds that grow there: beautiful;
invasive; they jostle
                                in the smallest wind.
Soon it will be as if nothing had ever happened.

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