American Muse: Carl Phillips

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“Brothers in Arms”

The sea was one thing, once; the field another. Either way,
something got crossed, or didn’t. Who’s to say, about
happiness? Whatever country, I mean, where inconceivable
was a word like any other lies far behind me now. I’ve
learned to spare what’s failing, if it can keep what’s living
alive still, maybe just
awhile longer. Ghost bamboo that
the birds nest in, for example, not noticing the leaves, color
of surrender, color of poverty as I used to imagine it when
I myself was poor but had no idea of it. I’ve always thought
gratitude’s the one correct response to having been made,
however painfully, to see this life more up close. ‘The higher
gods having long refused me, let the gods deemed lesser
do the best they can’ — so a friend I somewhere along the way
lost hold of used to drunkenly announce, usually just before
passing out. I think he actually believed that stuff; he must
surely, by now, be dead. There’s a rumored
humbling effect
to loss that I bear no trace of. It’s not loss that humbles me.
What used to look like memory — clouds for hours breaking,
gathering, then breaking up again — lately seems instead
like a dance, one of those slower, too complicated numbers
I never had much time for. Not knowing exactly what it’s
come to is so much different from understanding that it’s come
to nothing. Why is it, then, each day, they feel more the same?

Below – Edvard Munch: “Despair”
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