by Carl Phillips


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A bracingly beautiful new collection from the author of Double Shadow

"After the afterlife, there's an afterlife."

In Silverchest, his twelfth book, Carl Phillips considers how our fears and excesses, the damage we cause both to others and to ourselves, intentional and not, can lead not only to a kind of wisdom but also to renewal, maybe even joy, if we're willing to commit fully to a life in which "I love you / means what exactly?" In poems shot through with his signature mix of eros, restless energy, and moral scrutiny, Phillips argues for the particular courage it takes to look at the self squarely—not with judgment but with understanding—and extend that self more honestly toward others: It's a risk, there's a lot to lose, but if it's true that "we'll drown anyway—why not in color?"

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

I have a candidate for the author of the most interesting contemporary English sentences and it is not primarily a prose writer: the American poet Carl Phillips . . . Phillip's style has been remarkably consistent from volume to volume, upsetting our easy assumption that great artists evolve from phase to phase.” —Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

“Bruised past ripeness, all the action offstage, overwhelmed with beauty and always threatening to dissolve, Carl Phillips' Silverchest is an unlikely candidate for my favorite book of the year. Yet I doubt any new poetry collection has given me as much pleasure as this unusually—generously—slender, wintering tome. Part of that comes down to abundance: Phillips just writes so damned well, a rich ear interlocking his phenomenal powers of perception and imagination . . . The providence, here, when there is provision, is not so much in the world that Phillips describes as it is in the challenged art of description itself. Phillips' humility brings him to beauty. And his inability to account for his place among the living has allowed him to make the interplay between illusion and awareness into the one book this year that most richly and persuasively, at least for me, reinstates the possibility of finding meaning in a world that is forever ready to revoke the sources of meaning in our lives.” —Jonathan Farmer, Slate

“Phillips is a great poet of morality and desire and the complicated relationship between the two.” —Jared Bland, The Globe and Mail

“Silverchest is Carl Phillips's twelfth book of poems, and while it is a book only Carl Phillips could have written (which I mean as praise and not as a claim of redundancy), it breaks away into a new territory and, at times, new voice, as it deals directly with landscapes informed by the natural world as much as by the sexual imagination . . . And while Phillips is arguably at his most personal, and therefore revelatory, with Silverchest, he is also at his most spare, while still keeping close to the strong lyric dialectic line that informs all of his other books. It's a book that feels in tone and suppleness haunted not only by the past, but by what the present is trying to tell the future and beyond the future . . . Most of the poems are raw and short and thrilling the way shortness of breath is thrilling.” —Michael Klein, Coldfront

Silverchest displays the gifts of an exceptional talent with palpable staying power. The lyrics often manage to combine a disarming speaker, elegant syntax and startling titles that index powerful acts of mind.” —Joseph Campana, The Houston Chronicle

“In these gorgeous, meticulously constructed lyric poems, nature and music—motifs Phillips returns to often—take on the role of correlatives, evoking the mind's own cadence, its certainty and thaw. ” —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly

In Phillips’ 12th collection, as in previous collections, form pushes the writing’s nimble logic, with ruminations on desire and risk deploying Phillips’ trademark, kinesthetic syntax. But these poems reach an unprecedented vulnerability through conversations with the past—“About nostalgia, I am/ still against it”—as through a thematic effort to reveal the link between desire and power: “Nothing in this world/ like being held, he says, turning away, meaning// I should hold him…I have been to Rome,/ I have known the body, I have watched it fall.” Phillips interrogates causality and memory, exposing language as both an agent and a currency: “…I love you means, what exactly?” and “Is it days, really, or only moments ago/ that I almost told you everything,/ before remembering what that leads/ or has led to?” These hesitations are not merely rhetorical gestures; rather, doubt proves the only path to reliably exhuming the former self: “Funny how/ sorrow more often arrives before honesty, than/ the other way round. To my left, a blackness// like the past, but without the past’s precision.” In these gorgeous, meticulously constructed lyric poems, nature and music—motifs Phillips returns to often—take on the role of correlatives, evoking the mind’s own cadence, its certainty and thaw. (Apr.)

Library Journal

From the "squalor of leaves" in November, the "spell the leaves can make/ shuddering," and the "single leaf that/ won't stop tossing," to the stars that "each/ day become again invisible, while going nowhere" and the stars that "have been there, glittering, relentless, all along," to "Better wish again" and, a few pages later, "Make a wish," this new work from Los Angeles Book Prize winner Phillips (Double Shadow) is beautifully, breathtakingly of a piece. Despite all those wishes, this collection finds Phillips in a melancholy mood ("The snow fell like/ hope when it's been forsaken"). There's a general sense of resignation that relationships will end as they will always do ("making you wonder what fear/ is for, what prayer is"), even as the world and the stars stand by, solidly, dependably. The poems might seem too consistently downcast if it weren't for Phillips's superb craft, his ability to observe the interior and exterior worlds so keenly and infuse each line with reverberant acceptance and humanity. And then there's the little uplift at the end: the single leaf that won't stop tossing, casting its spell, is "you." VERDICT Highly recommended.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374534332
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 309,029
Product dimensions: 5.53(w) x 8.29(h) x 0.24(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Carl Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Carl Phillips
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7584-5



    There's a weed whose name I've meant all summer
    to find out: in the heat of the day, dangling pods hardly
    worth the noticing; in the night, blue flowers ... It's as if
    a side of me that he'd forgotten had forced into the light,
    briefly, a side of him that I'd never seen before, and now
    I've seen it. It is hard to see anyone who has become
    like your own body to you. And now I can't forget.


    Roughly the river, running swift, and silver.
    The usual more sluggish business of erosion
    to either side of it — this life,

      for that one. Green
    ambivalence of the trees where the forest shelves:
    so the dark deepens. So the dead become earth
    and then nothing, things that will never matter
    now in the way they used to, for —

      yes, they
    used to, or so we tell ourselves, pretending grief
    is like that. Wishes, rising suddenly up elsewhere,
    take their places in a shifting line called Better wish
Maybe joy really

      is a kind of spindrift —
    spinning, drifting — on a sea of sorrow, though it
    looked like prayer, and it felt like power, them
    kneeling before me as if to receive at last their crowns.


    When it comes to what, eventually, it must come to,
    don't forget to say to yourself Has it come to this again
Look a little lost, maybe,

      but unsurprised.
    Sometimes it feels like being a carousel horse, but
    with all the paint gone strange-like, all the wood gone
    driftwood, all the horses I've corralled inside me set free,
    confused now, because now what? The snow fell like
    hope when it's been forsaken, just before the wind shifts —
    then the wind shifts, the snow flies upward ... I love you
    means what, exactly? In the end, desire may turn out
    to be no different from any other song —

      sing, and be at
    last released from it. Not so long ago as I'd like to think,
    I used to get drunk in parking lots with strangers: we'd park,
    we'd drink, and — and didn't think what to call it, the rest
    that came after, what is a thing like that worth calling: he
    took me into his arms? he held me? I know longing's
    a lot like despair: both can equal everything you've ever
    hoped for, if that's how you want it — sure, I get that. What's
    wrong with me,
I used to ask, but usually too late, and not
    meaning it anyway. He touches me, or I touch him, or don't.


    Some are willing to trust any anchor. Some will
    choose the ship anyway, no matter how anchorless
    and dashed, between the wind and the sea. The sea
    the same then as now: more blear than blue, more
    blue than silver — processional, seeming to blur
    at once increasingly and at random toward and
    away from where everything catches fire except
    what doesn't. How they fucked him, yes, until
    he couldn't, yes, but — couldn't what. The raptor's
    wing unfolds, and then folds back. We turn here, but
    separately. Did his eyes close. Did he close them.
    Look how the jetty shines in the sun, for nothing.


    Never mind the parts that came later, with all
    the uselessness, as usual, of hindsight: regret's
    what it has to be, in the end, in which way it is
    like death, any bowl of sliced-fresh-from-the-tree
    stolen pears, this body that stirs,

    or fails to, as I
    turn away, meaning Make it yours, or Hold tight,
    or I begin to think maybe you were right — that
    there's nothing, after ...
though whether or not like
    one of those moments just past having woken to
    yet another stranger,

    how the world can seem
    to have completely stopped when, finally, it's just
    a stillness — who can say? First I envied them,
    then I came to love them for it, how the stars each
    day become again invisible, while going nowhere.


    I have been the king for whom the loveliest beasts
    were slaughtered and turned trophy. I've seen how
    brutality becomes merely the rhythm to a kind of
    song to sing while bearing the light steadily forward,
    the light in panels, in the shape that luck mostly takes

    before a life comes true again: the room no different
    than I remember leaving it: the snow still falls into it,
    on the same man bound naked to a chair, and trembling,
    saying Take me — meaning what, though, or where? — as
    I brush the snow from his hair, as I take him, in my arms.


    Squalor of leaves. November. A lone
    hornets' nest. Paper wasps. Place where
    everything that happens is as who says it will,
    because. As in Why shouldn't we have
    come to this, why not,
this far, this
    close to
      that below-zero where we almost
    forget ourselves, rise at last unastonished
    at the wreckery of it, what the wreckage
    somedays can seem all along to have
    been mostly, making you wonder what fear
    is for, what prayer is, if not the first word
    and not the last one either, if it changes
    nothing of what you are still, black stars,
      scars, crossing a field that you've
    crossed before, holding on, tight, though
    careful, for you must be careful, so easily
    torn is the veil diminishment comes
    down to as it lifts and falls, see it falling,
    now it lifts again, why do we love, at all?


      And he told me nowhere was a lake that,
    any day now, he'd surely drown in. What's the right
    answer to a thing like that?

    * * *

      So we just stood there,
    the two of us — shaking a bit in the cold,
    but pretty still, mostly. Horses in a field of moonlight.


    Bones, for sure. Feathers almost the white
    of an eagle's undershaftings in its first year.
    Any wind, that stirs. Punishment in death
    as it is in trembling: how it lifts, descends,
    though — like having meant to be kind, yet
    failing anyway — it can do no good. After
    the afterlife, there's an afterlife. A stand of
    cottonwood trees getting ready all over again,
    because it's spring, to release their seeds that
    only look like cotton; they're not cotton, at all.
    What we lose, without thinking to; what we
    give, for free. Distinctions that, if they even
    did before, now don't matter. Any shadows
    that break break randomly across these waters.


    There's a handful of black bees fastened
    to the crepe myrtle's shot, all-but-gone-to-seed
    flowers. Is it days, really, or only moments ago
    that I almost told you everything,
    before remembering what that leads
    or has led to? How still they are — the bees, I mean,
    not the flowers bending and unbending beneath
    a rain that's come suddenly and, just as suddenly,
    has stopped falling ... Stillness, not of death,
    but intoxication,
    sweet coma,
    zero-ness of no more wanting,
    nothing left to want for, the meadow at last
    fills with light, like a bowl,
    filled with light, spilling with it, only harder now,
    as if more desperate maybe, or just a thing that's brave.


    Seen this way,
    through that lens where need
    and wanting swim at random

    toward each other, away again, and
    now and then together, he moves less like
    a swan — black, or otherwise — than like any

    man for whom sex is, or has at last become,
    an added sense by which to pass ungently but more
    entirely across a life where, in between the silences,

    he leaves what little he's got to show for himself
    behind him in braids of water, green-to-blue wake of
    Please and Don't hurt me and You can see I'm hurt, already.


    Sure, there's a spell the leaves can make, shuddering,
    and in their lying suddenly still again — flat, and still,
    like time itself when it seems unexpectedly more
    available, more to lose therefore, more to love, or
    try to ...

      But to look up from the leaves, remember,
    is a choice also, as if up from the shame of it all,
    the promiscuity, the seeing-how-nothing-now-will
    save-you, up to the wind-stripped branches shadow
    signing the ground before you the way, lately, all
    the branches seem to, or you like to say they do,
    which is at least half of the way, isn't it, toward
    belief — whatever, in the end, belief

      is ... You can
    look up, or you can close the eyes entirely, making
    some of the world, for a moment, go away, but only
    some of it, not the part about hurting others as the one
    good answer to being hurt, and not the part that can
    at first seem, understandably, a life in ruins, even if —
    refusing ruin, because you

      can refuse — you look
    again, down the steep corridor of what's just another
    late winter afternoon, dark as night already, dark
    the leaves and, darker still, the door that, each night,
    you keep meaning to find again, having lost it, you had
    only to touch it, just once, and it bloomed wide open ...


    He did what I told him to,
    which for once I thought shouldn't count

    as weakness: he laid his gun on the bureau,
    took his own shirt off first, then mine — but then wrapped
    the gun up softly inside the both of them, sign
    for many things, Trust me, Close your eyes, Make a wish,

    so that I couldn't decide ...

      You know how, when the light
    flashes off water, then passes through it, then rubs up against,
    it can seem just like the mind in a fix thinking its way
    out of a fix, or at least trying to, the way Virgil in his
    big poem describes it, and for a moment you think

    everything's new that's been known forever — swamp-thistle,
    bull-thistle, touch-me-not, red clover?


    In the east country where I must have lived once,
    or how else remember it, the words came falling to
    every side of me, words from a life that I'd thought,
    if not easy, might at least be possible, though that
    was then: little crown and little burst of arrows

    and ritual, loyalty, they are not the same ... I lay
    rippling like a field shot through with amethyst
    and reason. Then it seemed I myself was the field,
    the words fell toward, then into me, each one no
    sooner getting understood, than it touched the ground.


    All night long, he's been a music almost
    too far away to hear, and the man who
    thinks he hears something that could maybe
    be music: bits of flourish where there can't
    or shouldn't be. As when camouflage matters
    suddenly less than stillness. Nothing in this world
    like being held,
he says, turning away, meaning

    I should hold him ... I have been to Rome,
    I have known the body, I have watched it fall,

    and the green, green grass. How the deer re
    unsettled themselves across it, disproportionately
    clumsy, for when they ran, there was grace. Then
    the dream dog emerging again — hindquarters
    first, as if dragging a great heaviness finally free
    from the stand of trees that swayed, for a while,
    the way bamboo does. Then silver birches.


    A boy walks out into a grayish distance, and he never comes back.
    Anger confusable with sorrow, sorrow canceling all the anger out ...
    It's the past, and it isn't. It's forever. And it isn't. The way, in hell,
    flickering's what they say what's left of the light does — a comfort,
    maybe, and maybe not. Sometimes by innocence I think I've meant
    the innocence of carnivores, raised in the wild, for whom the killing
    is sportless, clean, unmetaphysical — then I'm not so sure. Steeplebush
    flourished by some other name, lost now, long before there were
    steeples. I think we ruin or we save ourselves. Comes a day when
    the god, what at least you've called a god, takes you not from behind,
    the usual, but pins you instead, his ass on your chest, his cock in your
    face, his mouth twisting open, saying Lick my balls, and because you
    want to live, in spite of everything, you do what he says, heaven and
    earth, some rain, a few stars appearing, harder, the way he tells you to,
    then not so hard, a tenderness like no tenderness you've ever shown.


    Scattered soot, by which the myth you made for yourself,
    before at last becoming the myth, has sometimes been
    more easily understandable — but sometimes not — there's
    no one now; look away.

      A stillness falls across the blue
    ghetto of a life where it's been easy enough to lie down
    freely with strangers, tower over them, leave them behind

    for the other life, meaning this one, where a stillness falls
    also, but this time the way shadows fall, weightless, and yet
    they change everything, they change everything beneath them.


    After agony had left his body to find another,
    or in search of no one, just agony on its
    own for once, merely cruising,
    something stayed, like

      a precipitate — grief maybe,

    that's what they said,
    as if such had ever been
    grief's properties ... Why is lying
    to others always so much harder
    than to ourselves? Yesterday, for example,
    starlings in flight, the ice of
    the frozen pond beneath them briefly
    containing their shadows — not

      reflecting them,

    not the way water does, the way
    the water did, the way it will
    in spring when the pond has unlocked itself
    all over again with
    no more regard than disregard
    for the wings and faces that pass, or don't,
    across it, so what,

      so what? When I say
    I trust you, I mean I've considered
    that you could betray me, which means I know
    you will, that we'll have between us at last
    that understanding which is a safer thing
    than trust, not a worse,
    not a better thing ... Wanderer,
    little firework, little

      not-my-own, soon enough
    the non-world we've been steering for
    from the start: colorless, stripped of motion, all those
    pleasures you knew so well how to give to others
    gone also — pleasure,
    I can hear you say, what world
    was that


    It was then we found ourselves too many fields away from
    where we'd meant to be, with regard to desire, to get there
    ever, even if — though this was not the case — we'd been
    told the way. Sure, we'd developed a patience, perhaps
    even a taste for being lost, but we were plain exhausted: not
    in our bodies, which had forgotten nothing of what they'd

    known of heat, or of what to do with it — wasn't it this that
    had rescued us, mostly, from many worse persuasions, as we
    passed the time? — but if not in our bodies, then where, where
    else exhausted? Come weather, come whatever-we've-sworn,
    we leave our tracks in the dirt where of course we have to,

    say the ghosts in the walls, slurring their usual handful of notes

    remembered of the song that, together, each touch, each bruise
    equals. Then they fade like smoke, or a bit like regret. Who
    cares, anymore, about ghosts? Our ambitions were very high;
    on occasion, we fell from them — swiftly, without surprise,
    and very far. Never, though, never would we have called that
    failure, no — not then, and not now either. For here we are.


    Get dressed —

      We should leave, now.

    As for the so-called waters of persuasion,
    why not cast what's left of belief
    upon them?

      As when we come to love a thing
    for no better reason than that we have found it,
    and find it wants for love. Have you ever
    done that?

      Some asleep-looking bird, say, that's
    dead really, lying
    dead in the straw-grass, the grass and
    the imaginary conversation it makes
    with itself ...

      Or any man in tears, whispering If
    I go down on whoever tells me to, is it prayer,
    isn't it, did I pray


    then waves in reverse —

      maybe that's all we're given.
    Maybe stamina's just a fairer form of stubborn,
    and maybe not. As for autumn,

    that predictable drama will soon enough,

      be again beginning. — Get dressed. And,
    upon the confusion/unconfusion
    that the waves make, let's cast what's left.


    Not the war, but the part just after,
    when a great stillness whose beauty we'd have
    missed, possibly, had we instead
    been spared, hovers over the ruins.

    * * *

    Put your head in among the flowers —
    do it: but for
    me this time, not yourself,
is what I think he said.


    Like little forges for which the heart too often
    gets mistaken, the dogs run ahead of me, just
    out of earshot, across what's a field, and then
    a coast: some stones, some sand. Funny how
    sorrow more often arrives before honesty, than
    the other way round. To my left, a blackness

    like the past, but without the past's precision;
    to my right, the ocean ... Not so lost as I'd
    been thinking, then — or had once, admittedly,
    maybe even hoped for. Kingdom of what's left,
    still, to be angry at, or forgive. All of the bees
    flying at last out of me. We're traveling north.


    Deep from within the changing colors of a life
    that itself keeps changing, I know the leaves prove
    nothing — though it

      does seem otherwise — about
    how helplessness is not a luxury, not a hurt by
    now worth all the struggling to take back, but
    instead what we each, inevitably, stumble
    sometimes into,

      and sometimes through ... As for
    that grove-within-a-grove that desire has, so long,
    looked like — falling, proof of nothing, carrion birds
    clouding the slumped boughs of the mountain ash —

    I can almost see again: we'll drown anyway — why not
    in color? You're no more to me a mystery, than I to you.


Excerpted from Silverchest by Carl Phillips. Copyright © 2013 Carl Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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