Sentences and Fragments: “The Smell of Hay” and “The Cure” by Carl Phillips

I’ll never know why some poems stand out to me more than others, or why I’m drawn to certain themes more than others, but the two poems that really did something for me in this book are “The Smell of Hay” and “The Cure.”


The Smell of Hay

“The Smell of Hay” opens like this:

If I speak of suffering, / I don’t mean, this time, how it refines us, / I mean less its music than what is music-like / about it — a tendency to diminish to almost nothing, then / it swells back. [. . .]

And it ends like this:

[. . .] On the window’s / glass where the larger moths had beaten / against it, a fine powder, a proof by morning I had only  / to blow across. And it flew. It scattered.

There’s a delicacy to these lines, right? Look at those verbs, too: “refines, swells, blow, flew, scattered.” I don’t know why this poem touches me. I don’t know why I like it so much. Maybe it has something to do with the middle:

[. . .] Men who make / / no exceptions. Men who, because they expect everywhere / hard suprises, have themselves grown hard — fazeable, / fazed by nothing. Touch, as a form of collision; / a belief in divinity as a form of nostalgia. [. . .]

These are lovely lines. But I react to them as sentences, not as lines. Poets are big on lines. The line as a unit of measure. But not me. For me, the sentence is the smallest unit of measure. I tend to read past lines, past line breaks or line endings, to just get to the rest of the sentence, to figure out what’s being said. Poets would smack me. There is beauty in the line, the way the individual meanings of lines resonate and come together when they form the bigger sentence . . . at least, I think this is the way poetry works. Is it? See, the line is an incomplete unit to me; because it’s never finished, because it’s a fragment, it makes me anxious. This has got to be due to my entire adult life being devoted to the study of sentences (fiction). It’s so true: I’m completely out of my element when it comes to poetry, which, as I wrote before, baffles me.

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Contemporary Verse Novels: The Anxiety of Reading Poems and Kimiko Hahn’s THE UNBEARABLE HEART

This book undoes a lot of the anxiety I have as someone who has to read a lot of poetry and has yet to discover more than two or three books of poems that I actually like and would want to read again.

Does that sounds shitty and ignorant?

I mean it, though. And this is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to book-length poems. I like narrative. I like characters. And plot and setting and drama. And while some may argue that these exist in poetry collections, I’ll say they’re easier to settle into and enjoy in book-length poems (or contemporary verse novels, which I have written about a lot here).

I mean, I have a lot of anxiety. Am I alone when I say that poetry is hard. It’s not like you can just pick up a book of poems and dive in and just read, and when I say read I mean, you know, read, like the way you did when you were a kid, or the way you do when you pick up a magazine or your favorite guilty pleasure novels (mine are those romance novels that feature neurotic career women who find love in the most unlikely suitors). These books fly by, you know? They’re easy, they offer a better world to escape to, and they don’t take forever to read.

Poetry, though. Sooo different.

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