I’m most comfortable writing in a narrative mode, but when I started “A Thought,” I was clear that I didn’t want to describe the event that brought me to the page—or even to discuss how I was changed as a result of that event. I wanted only to meditate on the process of change, and the moment of recognizing it.
Why didn’t I want to tell this particular story? Probably because it injured my pride—or at least my vanity. But also because there wasn’t much to it, certainly not enough to build a poem around. And why didn’t I wish to talk explicitly about the change that the narrative occasioned in me, what I learned? Because it felt too personal, even self-indulgent. What material do we put into our poems, what material do we leave out—what limits do we place on ourselves? Just once in “A Thought,” do I glance at the event that gave rise to the poem: “A word, a look / from a man that wasn’t— / you realized a moment too late— / directed at you.” In some ways, these lines are the poem’s center, gesturing toward a quiet but productive embarrassment.
The work of Carl Phillips helped me through all this reticence. I didn’t sit down to write with Phillips’ poems in mind, but early in the composition process, I recalled “Native” from his collection Riding Westward, and it offered me a way forward. “Native” is a challenging text. I have read it dozens of times, and although I can speak with some confidence about the poem’s occasion and emotion, it contains more than one passage that remains opaque to me. And yet, despite this difficulty, “Native” is vibrant, moving sinuously from image to image. The music is beautiful, even if the meaning can be hard to pin down. As far as narrative goes, “Native” references its “story” only elliptically—giving a hint or two about a beloved and a troubled relationship. The poem modeled for me how a single motion, a continuous arc of mind, can carry a reader through a chain of images—and offer satisfaction, a full experience, even if the meaning isn’t fully clear. Also from Phillips I took the stance of “A Thought”: a speaker addressing himself in a knowing, intimate manner.
I suspect my poem is, finally, more accessible than “Native,” and I don’t think my similes range with the freedom and surprise that Phillips’ do. I also wonder if others, reading the two poems side-by-side, would feel as much kinship as I suggest here. But in any case, I feel indebted to Phillips for helping me say what I needed to, despite the barriers I had put up to my own utterance. As poets, we sometimes build mazes around ourselves—great hedge walls of inhibition or propriety, or of our own estimation of our skills. But occasionally we get lucky and another poet comes along to take us by the hand, lead us out.