When We Have Not Yet Learned To Pretend It All Makes Sense

Excerpts from “The History of the Personal and The Personal in History: The Poetry of Patrick Phillips,” by Billy Reynolds, storySouth (2005):

Chattahoochee I think the mysteries in Chattahoochee arise less from a conscious decision to withhold “the facts,” and more from my uncertainty: my sense that there is no unalloyed truth about my childhood, or any childhood, and about the family conflict at the heart of the book. I am always wary of deciding for the reader, or for myself, what those memories mean and what they are about. Instead I wanted to return to memories that I didn’t understand, but at the same time could not seem to escape. The common thread of the stories told in the book—a boy accidentally shooting a pregnant deer, a brother setting his face on fire, a drunken baptism at a poker game—is that I don’t know what any of them mean, but I’ve always known they were important. Such memories feel like oracles in the epics, in that the hero knows they mean something, but he always gets it wrong. I guess I still find the world bewildering, and what interests me about childhood is that at that point we have not yet learned to pretend it all makes sense. Children watch and witness. I guess I’m saying that if one secret of poetry is knowing more than you reveal, another is revealing how little you know.

There is nothing that gives me more delight in poetry than surprise. I think of Rilke’s “you must change your life.” Of Bishop: “And I let it go.” Of Herbert: “Me thought I heard one calling, Child / and I replied, My Lord.” And if surprise is one of my great pleasures in poetry, it requires first an expectation, and the suspense of waiting for it to be fulfilled. I love the narrative movement of sonata form, when a symphony establishes a phrase, elaborates it almost beyond recognition, and then finally returns to the tonic key that we had almost, but not quite, forgotten. It is journey that ends in a homecoming. And that is, I think, the ideal relationship between decorum and surprise: a poem that is both surprising and inevitable in its closing lines, as the formal contract with the reader is upheld, but not in the way that we expected.

By Patrick Phillips, from Chattahoochee.

I'd like to ask my mother
why I'm here, straddling
one thigh of her bell-bottom jeans,
listening to her whisper look
look sweetie
in my ear.

But I can't stop staring
at our fat cat Walina,
ancestor of every cat
that ever roamed that house,

as she blinks back at me,
licks between her claws,
then turns again to eating
the clear, vein-laced skin
stretched over the faces
of her babies squirming
in a pulled-out dresser drawer.

I'd like to ask—but this is back
before anything means anything, when it all just is,
and even the squinting kittens
are like a game my mother made up
to pass the drizzly afternoon.

Back in the cold, dark evening
of childhood, where I'm always
alone: watching Walina
close her mouth around the runt—
the sleepy one, the one too weak
to butt its head against her,
that meows and meows
though no sound comes out,
when she drops it outside the drawer.

This is in the oldest room
of the house behind my eyelids,
where the world began:
where a light bulb pops and flickers
over everything, and no one
ever comes to stop the kitten
from dragging its sack of blood
all over the white linoleum.