The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

Poem for Sunday

By Carl Phillips

There is a difference it used to make,
seeing three swans in this versus four in that
quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its
effects were. Declarations of war,
the timing fixed upon for a sea-departure; or,
about love, a sudden decision not to,
to pretend instead to a kind of choice.
It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere,
because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays,
like the damaged, something that could know better,
and should, therefore -- but does not:
a form of faith, you've said. I call it sacrifice -- an instinct for it,
or a habit at first, that
becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have
of what was true. You shouldn't look at me like that.
Like one of those saints
on whom the birds once settled freely.


"Carl Phillips is a master of expressive syntax, athletic turns of sentence that mime feeling," writes Robert Pinsky in today's Poet's Choice in The Washington Post Book World. "His distinctive sentences, with their parentheses of meditation, their cunning asides, suspended parallels and affecting divagations, are a little bit like Latin and a little bit like intense conversation, with its allusive, mothlike movement. His poem 'Custom' begins with the old Roman auguring from birds, to end with a different association...the poet customarily finds omens everywhere (and the person he is speaking to), calls that habit 'a form of faith.' Their conversation, along with its oblique and referential differences, also has its blunt moments: 'You shouldn't look at me like that.' The sentence can be heard as a kind of intimate teasing or something sharper than that."

Pinsky notes that the image of the kindly Christian St. Francis "emerges as if by association with the contrasting, ancient Roman image of birds as indicators of divinity. The poet associates the pre-Christian image with the pursuit of an art, finding meaning in the 'strays' of apparently random experience. He seems to sacrifice, by choice or habit, the comfort of the later Christian image, preferring the restless pursuit of significance in whatever comes. In a nearly casual tone, Phillips explicitly defines his customary process of discovering meanings and connections among random, contrasting or disparate things. Then he demonstrates that process implicitly, by linking the anxieties of Roman augurs with the mysteries of St. Francis."

I spent most of the day at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which this year focuses on the Mekong Valley, Northern Ireland and Virginia's earliest inhabitants and settlers. We started with the latter, having just been to Jamestown which was a big focus of the exhibits -- the Susan Constant was on the fans they were giving out, and the America's 400th Anniversary logo with the three ships was on the free packets of Virginia peanuts they were distributing all afternoon. There were a lot of displays on the areas in England where the settlers came from, including quite a bit about Canterbury Cathedral and castles in Kent. There was also log cabin building, John Smith's shallop (which we saw last year at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum) and local folk music.

But the local folk music was rather drowned out by the utterly fantastic Irish traditional band Four Men and a Dog, whom we saw at the other end of the festival amidst exhibits on the construction of the Titanic in Belfast, hurling sticks, coastal archaeology, church building and stonecutting, quilting and cooking, including a booth on Irish whiskey. We didn't see a lot of the Mekong Valley displays because the kids had gotten very sticky eating huge pieces of watermelon and my father's sciatica was bothering him; instead we came home, got cleaned up and went out to the Tour Grill, where I had very good crab soup. We stopped at World Market on the way home for Cadbury.

The Capitol Building seen beneath one of the Folklife Festival banners on the National Mall.

A Virginia log cabin being constructed across from the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum.

There was traditional Virginia storytelling on the "porch" of an imitation cabin...

...and, at the other end of the festival, foot-stomping traditional Irish music.

Kids got to try their hand at Irish stonecutting.

And there were cooking demonstrations.

Regrettably, signs like this one were all over the Irish whiskey booth.

But Virginia was celebrating its pride in its peanut-growers, and provided these for all.

Watched the Doctor Who finale with younger son after having seen the prequel parts last week, even though we haven't seen the middle third of this season yet -- it was wrenching even not getting some of the events referenced (I can't bear to listen to any "JUST WAIT" comments while watching on Sci-Fi like I was subjected to last year). Still not sold on Martha vs. Rose but will certainly take her over many other female characters, which I guess puts me in excellent company. Sunday is my 17th wedding anniversary; I think we're spending the day with the kids and taking them to see a local outdoor production of The Tempest in the evening, since we missed much of the one in Virginia Beach.

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