Poet's Choice: 'Now in Our Most Ordinary Voices' by Carl Phillips

By Carl Phillips
Sunday, June 7, 2009

I've often thought of a poem as that space where an elusive unclarity gets briefly pinned down and made clear. But more and more I think humans prefer illusion; we simply trade one illusion for the next one that seems for a moment not illusion at all, but clarity. The problem with true clarity is that we see what's there, and too much of that reality, as Eliot famously said, can prove unbearable for human beings. The poem, then, is itself a kind of illusion. It looks and feels as if something difficult has been captured -- named, as it were, and therefore safely possessed.

The title of my poem (below) suggests a resistance to what's deceptive or elaborate, but the poem opens with a conceit about sex that can't be true: How can sex be composed of landscape and shadow? This poem is very much about how we refuse to see ourselves clearly or sometimes can't, even as others fail to see us clearly, often because of the illusions we present to them as our true selves. To enact this dilemma, the poem constantly shuttles between moments of clarity (admitting error, seeing inevitability for what it is) and moments of creating illusion, turning willows into oracles, pretending that relationships are in fact a game to be mastered. It's as if, by pretending long enough, we might believe it, and that will make it true -- which is perhaps this poem's most troubling illusion of all.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Now in Our Most Ordinary Voices

There's a kind of shadowland that one body makes, entering

another; and there's a shadowland the body contains always

within itself, without resolution ¿ as mystery a little more

often, perhaps, should be¿For a moment, somewhere

between the two, I can see myself as I begin to think

you must see me: a stranger to helplessness,

spouting things like To know is to live flayed, and Ambition

means turning the flesh repeatedly back -- toward the whip,

not away, I can still hear myself saying that, believing it --

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