This Strangest of All Strange Things: An Interview with Patrick Phillips

by Daniel Cross Turner & Patrick Phillips

Soon the undertaker’s sons
will come and lift this
strangest of all strange things

a palimpsest
of what we loved,
a nest in the brittle leaves.

from Elegy for a Broken Machine (2015)

DANIEL CROSS TURNER. Maybe we can begin with a couple of general questions about your work. You write in what one might call a plain style. Your language is straightforward, uncomplicated. Your tone is always level, even quiet. Your lines are taut, stanzas sparse. And your subject matter is realistic, accessible. Yet the accumulative effect of your poems is astonishing. Their art, it would seem, is concealed in plain view. How do you produce such powerful affect, such emotional force, from your terse, understated style?

PATRICK PHILLIPS. First off, Dan, thank your for reading the poems with such care, and for hearing in that understated style something other than just plain-ness. While I’d love to claim that as a deliberate stylistic choice, I think it is really just a stay against confusion!

I often feel overwhelmed by modern life, by my various glowing screens, and by the tidal waves of language they unleash. And so at the desk I find myself trying to slow things down, to quiet the chatter, and to focus, against all odds, on a few vital but ineffable moments that I missed, or couldn’t quite take in, while they were happening.

Of course I can think of friends who, reading this, will probably howl, and point out that I myself am usually the loudest one at the table! But I suppose that has to do with the difference between myself among people, and myself on the page.

Many of my favorite poems are quiet, and seem written not for the public, but to one listener, one reader alone late at night. I am thinking of John Keats’ odes, or Ezra Pound’s versions of Li Po, or that moment when Walt Whitman says “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” With such heroes, I aspire, at least, to the same kind of resonant white space.

Lastly—what a hypocrite!—I think the poems in Elegy for a Broken Machine are spare, since, after all, I’m not the only who has experienced these things—who has lived and loved and lost people. Whoever you are, I think of the reader, you either know about those hospital rooms and IV drips already, or you will, alas, soon enough.

TURNER. Your scenes are often domestic, focused on home life, its comforts, tensions. You write “familiar” subjects, then, in a couple of senses: (1) recognizable to most readers and (2) focused on family matters. Why do you think family forms such an abiding motif in your poetry?

PHILLIPS. The short answer is that family has occupied me as a writer because being a father is, in “real life,” one of my main occupations. I’ve spent a lot of my waking (and half-waking) life raising two sons, all while still being a son myself, a husband, a brother, a son-in-law, even a grandson until recently. And again, I know that’s true for the reader no less than me: whoever you are, we’re all both supported by and ensnared in these webs of relationship. I guess I write about families because mine, whatever else, has seldom calmed down enough to be boring!

I’m also interested in family because it’s such a hallucinogenic drug. When the phone rings and it’s someone from my family in Georgia, I am instantly Southern again, and younger than I was a minute before, and a person I mostly forgot was inside me suddenly rises from the depths like a ghost, and starts using a language and a sense of humor and a psyche I had otherwise forgotten I contained!

Czeslaw Milosz said all this best, and I have it on a post-it over my desk:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

TURNER. Although your poems treat domestic subjects in plainspoken terms, there is nevertheless something subtly unfamiliar in the scenes you recreate, a feeling of unease, of disquiet at back of the quiet tone. Sigmund Freud reminds us that unheimlich (or “uncanny”) literally means unhomelike. It seems there is often something unhomelike about the home, an undertow of dark matter that puts familiar things askew in your poems focused on the family. Where do you think this uncanniness arises from?

PHILLIPS. I love that etymology of “uncanny,” and of course it’s true! Part of growing up, I think, is admitting what we suspect early on: that nowhere is quite so uncanny, so “unhomelike,” as home. It makes me think of a song by Steve Earle called “Hometown Blues,” which riffs on a lot of Bluegrass standards about longing for home. In Earle’s version the same kind of rambler says:

I wish I’d never come back home
It don’t feel right since I’ve been grown
I can’t find any of my old friends hangin’ ’round
Won’t nothin’ bring you down like your hometown

So that, for me, gets to the heart of it: “home” was always an idea and ideal, and poor, actual home itself is never equal to our longing for it. It’s like what happens when Penelope finally gets her beloved back in the Odyssey. It’s a bloodbath, and we see that the war has made Odysseus into a kind of monster, even to Penelope—something not quite fit for home. This is all just to say that if the domestic in the poems seems to have a dark undertow, I hope it’s not something I’ve invented, but something I’ve simply faced.

TURNER. Do you consider yourself a “Southern” writer, even if not in the traditional sense of relying on dialect, folkways, storytelling, the Bible, a sense of place?

PHILLIPS. I will always think of myself as a Southern writer, though not in the same way I used to. When I first started writing I felt very defiantly Southern, and wore it on my sleeve: my first book announced that with the title Chattahoochee, and it does feature a lot of biblical language, a real emphasis on the Georgia landscape I love so much, and even a few moments of dialect.

But I have now lived far more of my life outside of the South than inside it, and at a certain point I became aware of the risk of clinging too desperately to that identity as a kind of schtick—an angle, a way of packaging myself as a writer. I’m not interested in that anymore, not because I feel less profoundly shaped by my childhood in Georgia, or any less connected to the great enigma that is the South, but because it started to feel unnecessarily reductive. Why, a friend asked me at one point, don’t you write about New York? Why don’t you write about Brooklyn?

I had no answer to that, other than my own cowardice, and my own desperate clinging to a narrow sense of what kind of poet I could be. So I feel I will always be a Southern writer, but one who is interested in everything… one free to look up and look around at the world right here, on the A train barreling under the East River, stuck in traffic in Sunset Park, Brooklyn… free to follow wherever the best sentences lead.

TURNER. Do you see a progression across your three poetry volumes, from Chattahoochee (2004) to Boy (2008) to Elegy for a Broken Machine (2015)? Or, if progression is not the right word, perhaps important convergences or divergences between the volumes?

PHILLIPS. I guess I see changes and also abiding subjects. I keep writing about family, but in the course of the three collections I have changed places on the stage, and changed roles in the drama: from child to adult, son to father, cared-for to care-giver. But I don’t mean that to sound planned-out. If I had my way I’d never grow old! So the temporal progression is, alas, out of my hands.

I’ve also gotten progressively more interested in formal schemes, and in many ways I think I’ve reversed the course of my heroes in mid-20th-century American poetry. James Wright—encouraged, goaded, sometimes even threatened by Robert Bly—famously turned his back on metrical poetry when he withdrew a book of “old style” verse from Wesleyan and instead published The Branch Will Not Break in 1963. I began my writing life as an imitator of Wright and Bly and James Dickey, and because I loved them, I spent a lot of time scoffing at meter and form, though I was like the dumbass kid brother, just aping their free-verse passion and not really knowing what I was talking about.

In the years since I have fallen under the spell of Wright’s other confidant, Donald Justice, and a whole host of writers interested in forms, from Renaissance poets like Ben Jonson and George Herbert, to more recent models like Alan Shapiro, Kay Ryan, and Seamus Heaney. Those folks showed me that, as Shapiro has said, you don’t have to choose. So if there is a divergence from the earlier work in this new book, it is, I think, an even greater effort to tap into the power of song: repetition, variation, and refrain. Certain formal arrivals always raise the hair on the back of my neck, and I started wanting to see if I could get some of that mojo into my poems.

TURNER. Elegy for a Broken Machine offers a kind of memorial book of the dead, like the nineteenth-century photographs made of newly deceased loved ones to keep their likeness alive. Your poems recreate the deaths of a number of loved ones, most particularly the loss of your father. In writing these poems, is there any intent to kill time? That is, do you feel you are poetically “photographing” the dead, recording at once your loved ones’ permanence and impermanence, marking their death at the same time that you lend them life, even if it’s the eerie afterlife of the undead?

PHILLIPS. This is one of the questions I’ve been worried about being asked, because of a difference between my autobiography and the poems. So let me just clarify that while my father went through two very serious illnesses during the time I was writing the book, he is alive and doing well.

But I also don’t want to suggest that you’ve misread the collection, because during those same years my wife’s father, who was also very much a father-figure to me, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and died while we attended him at home. So there is a blurring of all that in the poems, as I realized that the poems for my father and the poems for my father-in-law were of a piece, and also as I decided not to trouble the reader with all this biography.

For me the elegiac mode is, in addition to lament, very much about praise. I think we tend to view as opposites some emotions that I found to be almost inseparable as I watched two of the strongest men I know brought to their knees by sickness. Grief and love, lament and praise, humor and sadness. All of that happen at once. My wife’s father was named Ollie, and at his funeral this long train of people came up to my wife, and told her things she’d never known about her father. And together they made it clear just how much and how widely he was loved.

So it was one of the saddest days but also, as odd as this sounds, one filled with unexpected moments of love and even a strange kind of sad happiness. The emotions didn’t abide by our names for them, and so when I went to write about it, I felt I needed to try, at least, to honor that.

TURNER. Elegy for a Broken Machine is, not surprisingly, filled with various forms of elegy, several labeled so by name (i.e., “Elegy for a Broken Machine,” “Elegy Outside the ICU,” “Elegy with Oil in the Bilge,” “Elegy with a Bronze Station Wagon,” “Elegy After Midnight,” “Elegy After a Suicide,” “Elegy for Smoking,” “Elegy at the Trinity Pub,” and “Elegy with Gasoline”). What drew you to elegy so fully in this volume?

PHILLIPS. What drew me to elegy was, I’m afraid, experience. And that, as unglamorous as it sounds, makes this a book of middle-age: that time in life when you finally realize that everywhere and always, all around you, people are going through what happened to my father, to Ollie, to my friend who died of a brain tumor, to my beloved teacher who committed suicide. Faced with the realization—in hospital rooms, in funeral homes—that there is nothing all that special, nothing exceptional about someone dying, I felt a line being drawn: between the first half of my life, when I was free to walk around oblivious of all this, and the second half, when I realized that behind every door, in every apartment window, such scenes might be unfolding.

So I was drawn to elegy after having found in some of the great elegies of the past not solace, but company: Ben Jonson’s “On my First Son,” W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” Alan Shapiro’s whole book Song and Dance. What does the writer of an elegy want? To bring back the dead. To make the catastrophe unhappen. That’s not, of course, what we get. But as Wislawa Szymborska said, “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing them.” What else are you going to do?

TURNER. The volume links glinting fragments of scattered losses: your father, your father-in-law, your friends, former lovers, acquaintances. Do you find writing these elegiac poems personally redeeming or cathartic? I suppose there’s a sense that, as the saying has it, love never dies, which seems a good thing, to carry the memory of loved ones forward. But maybe this can also be a bad thing: love never dies, ever. There’s never the letting go.

PHILLIPS. Unfortunately, I think love does die, since we do, but of course I know what you mean. As long as we live there is memory, and one doesn’t stop loving someone because he or she is dead. In some ways “grief” is just the name we give to love after the beloved is gone. And the last thing the griever wants to do is let go.

In that sense I don’t find poetry redeeming or cathartic at all. It does no good to the dead, of course, and it’s the most paltry solace compared to even a minute with the lost beloved. But since what the griever wants is impossible, it’s one of the ways we pretend… one of the ways we bring them back to life—however inadequately, however delusionally—for at least as long as the poem lasts.

TURNER. Your poems take up the poet’s Orphic task to recant death in its root sense: to sing back the dead to life, even as this work may offer little personal solace and even as the poem can’t “make the catastrophe unhappen.” Your poetry makes clear, though, that elegy is not eulogy(etymologically, “good words”), that speaking of the dead does not equate to speaking well of the dead. Instead, your voice throughout these elegies remains restrained, even blunt. And I think that accuracy, that matter-of-factness strikes resonance with your audience, particularly those who may have suffered similar losses.

PHILLIPS. Well, I hope so. Writing about strong, serious men means that I was always aware of the risk of bullshitting about them… of having someone I love roll his eyes in that cartoon heaven we imagine, saying “Jesus, here he goes again!” And of course even the most noble men snarf down SunChips at the golf course sometimes, and rip the tubes out of their arms, and stare at us with the eyes of frightened children. Even the most worthy crack up at dumb jokes. So I wanted to be honest about all that… to treat the dead as no less themselves than when they were alive.

TURNER. Poems such as “Four Haiku,” “Elegy Outside the ICU,” and “The Night Nurse Comes” provide compressed, almost impressionistic sequences of the way of things in the modern hospital ward, of the usual manner of death. Humans and machines moan and drain; doctors and staff shift in and out of the rooms, cold and sterile in the florescent half-light; neither patients nor visitors find rest. The details, plain as they are grim, are familiar, even as they are defamiliarizing: your descriptions impress us as all too real, yet estranging, uncanny. The hospital, thus recreated, seems to do little to clean up death, its unkempt appearance, its untimeliness.

PHILLIPS. Yes, whenever I think I’m finished growing up, some new milestone passes. And for me, becoming familiar with hospitals, hospice nurses, morphine drips, and funeral directors was one of those milestones. Again, I hope that the surreal quality of the medical world in the book doesn’t feel contrived, or “vagued-up” (my favorite Onion headline: “Local poet takes five minutes to vague-up poem”). I wasn’t trying to make that stuff strange for effect: to me it was surreal to stand by my father and see tubes and wires snaking in and out of him, and hear machines doing the breathing for him, and realize that the trickling sound coming from under the bed was the sound of him being kept alive by pumps and drains and beeping screens. Again, I can’t help but quote Wright, who was the first poet I read who described this world, in “To the Muse”:

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn’t
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.

That tone has always stayed with me, and certainly influenced the medical poems: Wright’s quiet horror, how kindly and patiently he is appalled, and how astonished by what the body endures. The entire outside world means nothing to people fighting to survive in a hospital ward, and so that tone seems to me utterly appropriate. That decorum.

TURNER. Another powerful motif, interrelated, that courses through the volume regards connections you draw between the human body and nonhuman machines. As the epigraph above reveals, the human body transforms in death to “this / strangest of all strange things.” And in poems like “Elegy Outside the ICU,” the distinction between human body and machine thins to near-nothing, as structures of the human body (e.g., “a long blue length / of vein that someone / had unlaced from his leg”) become indistinguishable from the mass of tubes and wires feeding medical machinery (e.g., “the dark blood / circulating through / these hulking beige machines”). What does this say about the human condition, the shape we’re in?

PHILLIPS. The miracle is that all those machines that beep and tick and quietly horrified me in the hospital also saved my father’s life, and because of them he is still here to read this book. So it is, back to your earlier point, uncanny: that the means by which the body is preserved are so freakishly inhuman, and so terrifyingly “not us.” Seeing that for the first time, after my father had emergency open heart surgery, was many things, but above all I found it shocking.

It is a spectacle and a shock to see someone in ICU, and for a few seconds I couldn’t tell what I was looking at: if it was really my Dad, and if so, where he ended and the various electrical and mechanical support systems began. To use the cant of my academic life, it was a radical destabilization of the body, which suddenly flowed, literally, beyond its traditional borders. So the poems grew out of that shock, and, I admit, my inability to erase the image of my father’s ghostly face just out of surgery.

TURNER. You yourself are not spared. You, too, count among the dead. You brilliantly elegize one Patrick Phillips in “Variations on a Text by Donald Justice” and then offer us your final testament in “Will.” Why put yourself—your dead self—in there? And end the volume here?

PHILLIPS. Well, the short answer to that one is that I’m not spared in the book because none of us are spared any of this. The poem that declares “Patrick Phillips is dead” echoes a line from Donald Justice, who was echoing a line from Cesar Vallejo. So I included myself in part to write myself into that tradition… a kind of photo-bomb of the portrait of the great laureates Justice and Vallejo! Right now it feels like cleverness, but at some point, hopefully far in the future, that statement will become true, as it did for Justice, as it did for Vallejo.

I admit that part of the appeal of writing about one’s own death is that it is a bit creepy and hair-raising… like uttering a forbidden name or a dangerous spell. It feels transgressive to even say it: “Patrick Phillips is dead.” If one definition of poetry is “highly charged language,” such a statement, whatever else, carries a charge.

TURNER. The complexities of father-son relationships appear across several poems. The volume’s opening/title poem begins with a son’s dream-memory of watching his father repairing some broken thing in the garage:

My father was trying
to fix something

and I sat there just watching,
like I used to,
whenever something

went wrong.

It becomes clear the poem is about death, and the death of a son’s father, something that cannot be fixed:

I kept asking where he’d been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying’s just something

that happens sometimes.

Death is something hard to tell. The father, being from an older generation where men were less free with their emotions, is taciturn. But perhaps his actions speak louder than his words, perhaps “even the silence, / if you listened, / meant something”? Does some understanding pass between them in “the murky garage,” something redeeming traded down from father to son here?

PHILLIPS. For me that poem is a kind of ars poetica, and for that reason I wanted to open the collection with it… to set up some of the rules of engagement. It’s not, at least in my reading, that things make sense. It’s not that death carries a message. Not that if we listen closely enough we’ll understand. That’s what Alan Shapiro calls “the blab about death” we are offered as solace. But it is also incredibly seductive to believe that somehow things cohere, that we lose those we love for a reason.

So I wanted in that poem to document my profound longing for some kind of meaning in the silence that follows a death, but also to be honest about the doomed nature of such a wish. I am wary about saying too much here, because if anyone reads the poem as comforting or a consolation, I’d be happy to hear it. But for me that father gleaning the secrets of death from a cracked fuel pump, or a clogged carburetor, or whatever he holds to his ear, is simply a dream. However much we might strain to hear them, the dead don’t tell us anything.

TURNER. The father-son dynamic seems to invert in poems like “The Night Nurse Comes,” a poem that reflects those “certain formal arrivals”—a wonderful phrase—that you mentioned earlier. The son now must prepare to take on a different role, since his father who can no longer “eat or walk or read or speak” under hospital care. The night nurse unknowingly provokes this transit in the closing couplet:

When I shake the cup of ice, he flicks his gray bird-tongue—
as she commands, under her breath, You must be the son.

What does this new role entail? What does it mean to be the son here?

PHILLIPS. Well, I think you’ve imagined that final moment exactly as I experienced it: something said by the nurse as a comment, but heard by the son as a command: You must be the son. Part of the misunderstanding arises out of the fact that for people who work in hospitals, sickness and death are ordinary and daily, while for each family, they are extraordinary and catastrophic. At that moment everyone else in the room is engaged in an epic struggle, but the nurse is just working her shift.

So the poem is, just as you say, my attempt to describe the first vertiginous moments of realizing there are no grown-ups coming to make it right, no father to call for help when the ones in trouble are the parents themselves. In answer to your question, I don’t know what that role reversal means, but I do know what it felt like, which was terrifying.

For me, becoming a father meant trying to be less selfish and more devoted to the well-being of others. But who knew that being a son would call for those same kinds of devotion? Lots of people know, of course, but I wasn’t one of them until recently.

TURNER. How would you describe the model of fatherhood described in “The Shoebox Hades”? A relatively young father attends his son’s elementary school, where the son’s shoebox model is displayed and features a Lego Aeneas among the shades

watching his
clay father fade
into the glued-on
cotton mist.

The gentle bonds between father and son in “The Shoebox Hades” are darkened by that same existential murkiness we see in “Elegy for a Broken Machine.” The archetypal looms beneath, beyond the personal, and the tender strains grow tense when it becomes time for the teacher to take

by his small wrist

the boy who clings
to me like death,

as if he knows:
it is no myth.

We encounter a similar dynamic in “Mercy,” where the father regrets teaching his sons the rough childhood game of Mercy—the wrong kind of mercy. In a world full of emptiness, of broken things, what hope can fathers give sons? Or barring hope, what lesson, at least?

PHILLIPS. I think both of the poems you mentioned cop to some of the brutality of childhood, much of which we put out of mind once we have made it to adulthood and gained some power over our lives. But as a parent I’ve been astonished at times to see just how much children endure: how often someone—usually me—is yanking them up by the wrist, or tearing something out of their hands, or terrifying them with one scolding or another.

So that poem grows out of my experience going to all those art shows at my sons’ schools, and milling around the folding tables looking at their creations. My poor kids have had to listen to me drone on and on about Odysseus and Aeneas so many times that I think one of them actually made a little Hades in art class, and so I wrote that poem about the surprise of encountering Aeneas and Anchises in such an unlikely place.

One thing led to another and I realized that it was really about my sons’ awakening to the fact that we die. That I will, with any luck, die before them and they will go on, like Aeneas. At the time I was standing at the art show thinking all this, it was also during the years when my father-in-law was sick, and when my father was sick, and all the men of that generation seemed to be breaking down. So it’s a poem about the fact that we will, all of us, have to say such goodbyes.

TURNER. Would you say a few words about your current project(s)?

PHILLIPS. I’m working on a nonfiction book about the lynching of a man named Rob Edwards in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912, and the subsequent expulsion of the county’s black population.

I grew up in Forsyth in the 1970s and 80s, and so this is the great founding myth of the people I knew as a kid, many of whose families were proud to live in a “white county.” It is a story I first heard as a second-grader on the back of the school bus, and it was always told as something that happened too far back in the mists of time to ever really document, or understand.

But then as old newspapers started to be digitized in the early 2000s, I found out a lot of things I believed no one would ever know, and started to figure out who did what, and where, and when. And now I’ve spent the past few years researching those events and interviewing descendants of the African American families who were forced out. So I have taken a hiatus from poetry, though at the same time this project also feels deeply connected to my usual obsession with place and family and the past.

TURNER. Finally, a question that I ask each poet I interview to close things off…or open things up. What is the future of poetry?

PHILLIPS. Good question! I think, and believe, that the future of poetry as an art is to go on as it always has, person to person, writer to reader, from whispering voice to listening ear. And that’s the part of poetry I love the most: its elusive, subversive, trickster resilience, always defying the predictions of its demise, and calling out in a human voice to the few, as ever, who care to listen.

As to the public life of poetry, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed in the information age by a thousand other voices with a million more followers and “likes.” But so it goes. My teacher Michael Collier once described what we do as a kind of monk’s work, keeping poetry alive, regardless of reports about “the future of poetry.” The barbarians are always at the gate, so what are you gonna do? You keep scribbling.

DANIEL CROSS TURNER has published three books to date: a scholarly monograph, Southern Crossings: Poetry, Memory, and the Transcultural South (University of Tennessee Press, 2012); a collection of scholarly essays, Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture (LSU Press, 2015); and a poetry anthology (coedited with William Wright), Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (University of South Carolina Press, 2016). His dozens of essays appear in scholarly or literary journals, such as MosaicGenreMississippi QuarterlySouthern Quarterly, and Five Points, and in edited collections from Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Continuum, and Routledge, among other venues. Several of his interviews with contemporary writers appear in previous issues of storySouth. Dr. Turner is Research Affiliate for the Institute of Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina and serves on the Board of Governors for the South Carolina Academy of Authors.