LYRIC COMPANION Carl Phillips “Of the Shining Underlife”

Above me, the branches toss toward and away from each other / the way privacy does with what ends up / showing, despite ourselves, of / who we are, inside. // Then they’re branches again—hickory, I think.// It’s not too late, then.

from Poetry, July/August 2020

FRAME OF REFERENCE This intermedium is not a matter of the subject versus the object or of the object versus the subject, or yet of the subject and subject, that is, of intersubjectivity. The intermedium of communication is ontologically elemental, and subject, object, and intersubjectivity come to be in it, out of it.
WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 206.

I write in the morning after the first presidential debate with storms and power outages. My laptop is charged. I’m keen to get on with a poet I’ve always meant to get to know. Carl Phillips (b. 1959) studied and taught classics but didn’t publish any poetry until 1990. In essay and poem he explores the lyric narrative with remarkable intelligence and grace.

This very short poem appears in a recent Poetry magazine. It captures the lyric elan which is so important to me as I watch the world fall apart. In “Of the Shining Underlife,” Phillips follows the narrative in its basic flow from outside to inside, from lower to higher to intimate high/low universal. Just read it and see.

One of my first intuitions of lyric form back in the day was its “wave-like structure.” Following the syntax here does suggest the fluidity of a wave. Notice how “privacy” appears as a calm, dynamic center of the first section. The self yields to lyric selving.

Then the (re) appearance of the finite other in the equivocal “hickory, I think.”

The wave withdraws to its original “agapeic” source with the final line.

It’s short and sort of definitive, if that word makes any sense. But the poem encourages us to practice, hum, whistle it: in spite of all that is also happening. It’s not too late, THEN. We are left to enjoy the lyricism of the narrative. Reading about Phillips one notices how often the word “lyric” crops up. He’s a great practitioner of this form-of-forms.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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