In “Almost Tenderly,” Imagining the “It”

Pablo Tanguay
October 17, 2013
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In the Carl Phillips poem “Almost Tenderly,” included in his Double Shadow and also Kenyon’s Radiance Versus Ordinary Light: Selected Poems by Carl Phillips, a scene unfolds inside an “It.” The “It” is some sort of container. The container may be physical or purely metaphorical, but it has “heft.” The nouns that it or its heft is compared to (syntactically, the distinction is hard to make) connote both protection (armor, breastplate, shield) and revelation (the shield is on hinges). Alas, the container “swung apart / like a door,” revealing “the sea / and on the shore, a man: stripped; beaten.”

The rhythm, the repetition of “It”, and, I think, the confident tone of the first few lines work to make us (me) assume a door has opened onto a scene of sea and shore and man. Or, put another way, a curtain has risen to reveal, in one sense, this scene, and, in another sense, the very guts of the poem, its workings, exposed through the scene’s action. Yet another metaphor: the hood has lifted to reveal the engine.

But that can’t be right. No door has actually “swung apart.” What has “swung apart” is the It itself, not its door. Who knows if it even has a door. The It can only be imagined, in fact, through metaphor—more specifically, through simile: it (or its heft) is like a breastplate, like a shield; it opens like a door. It may actually be impossible to imagine the physical event the beginning of the poem purports to describe: how can the entirety of a container (“Inside it, the sea was visible”) be “swung apart / like a door”? I imagine French doors swinging open. And also the shield, on its hinges. But those are misreadings, no matter that the poem has led me to believe them. I cannot, it’s true, imagine what I cannot imagine.

So the way into the poem is the way into the poem and, at the same time, not the way into the poem.

And once in, no matter the route, what then?

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