The Past Alive

My criteria for satisfying poetry aren't sophisticated or academic. 

They're simple: 

  • Does it remind me of experiences (often sensory) from my own life that I've forgotten? 
  • Does it steer my attention to the observed rather than the observer? 
  • Does it try to describe something that is impossible to summarize or understand?
  • Does it inspire me to write poetry

Patrick Phillips's work meets all of these. He finds the mundane rich, the past alive, and family connections sacred.

In this collection, he observes the inevitability of death. Technology keeps advancing, but it will never be able to remove the inevitability of our endings — or provide the comfort we yearn for when the lives of those we love wind down before our eyes. 

From "Elegy for a Broken Machine": 

I keep asking where he'd been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying's just something

that happens sometimes

He untangles fragility from the urge to protect so we can glimpse their individual threads. 

From "Four Haiku": 

Out the window, rain. 
Behind the paper curtain
someone worse off moans. 

The only problem I have with poetry collections by Patrick Phillips is the amount of time between them. To get around this, I'm planning to read his translations of Henrik Nordbrandt in When We Leave Each Other.

by Patrick Phillips, from Elegy for a Broken Machine (library)

Like two wrestlers etched
around some ancient urn

we’d lace our hands,
then wrench

each other’s wrists back
until the muscles ached

and the tendons burned,
and one brother

or the other grunted Mercy —
a game we played

so many times
I finally taught my sons,

not knowing what it was,
until too late, I’d done:

when the oldest rose
like my brother’s ghost,

grappling the little
ghost I was at ten —

who cried out Mercy!
in my own voice Mercy!

as I watched from deep
inside my father’s skin.

Patrick Phillips reading at the 2015 National Book Award Finalists Reading