Elegy for a Broken Machine (Knopf, 2015)
Poet Patrick Phillips’s latest book, Elegy for a Broken Machine: poems, is a graceful meditation on grief and memory. The poems in this volume offer unflinching perspectives on illness and aging, and yet they are permeated by a subtle optimism, wisdom, and wit. Phillips is the author of two previous volumes, Boy (2008) and Chattahoochee (2004), and he translated a volume of Henrik Nordbrandt’s poems from Danish into English. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, among numerous other honors. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Drew University. The Rail’s Hirsh Sawhney, Phillips’s colleague and friend, interviewed him over email.
Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): Many of the poems here are about ways of accessing the past. We see a widow sewing her husband’s work clothes into a quilt now that he’s gone. We see you reliving boyhood games of “mercy” with your sons. You seem to be attempting to gauge the way the past informs the present, or can somehow live on in the present.
Patrick Phillips: I love the way you’ve expressed that, and yes, I’m fascinated by those moments when living in a family creates these echoes of the past. Faulkner famously said, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past,” and that idea has come to me many times while raising children, with all its rituals. I often feel like I am simply standing in a different place on the stage, playing a different role in the same family drama. There is something both lovely and terrifying about that, since those echoes of childhood allow me to experience again some of the happiest parts of my life. But of course, I’m never at the controls of the time machine, so sometimes it lurches and veers back to some dark moment from deepest childhood that I never wanted to see again—the return of a bully, or of a broken heart, or of some great betrayal.
Rail: Are you that woman at the sewing machine stitching up those clothes?
Phillips: I don’t think I am that woman at the sewing machine yet, though I might be someday if I should have to go on without my beloved. The poem “Work Clothes Quilt” takes its title from a genre of quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose work I saw in a museum exhibition. A “work clothes” quilt is made by a widow after her husband has died, by piecing together his stained jeans, and coveralls, and all the tattered work clothes he left behind. Around the time I first learned about these quilts, my wife’s father had just died, and he was exactly that kind of guy—always outside, always working with his hands. Watching his wife go on without him gave me a close-up look at the loneliness and shock of widowhood for the very first time. So I suppose the woman in the poem is partly my mother-in-law, and partly every grieving widow or widower I’ve ever met, without realizing just how much was packed into that word.
Rail: You’ve written many poems about family—about your ancestors, and your unborn great-grandchildren. Does family provide solace in a morally ambiguous modern world?
Phillips: I certainly agree that it is a morally ambiguous world, though I often go even further, and think it is simply an immoral world. Like everyone, I sometimes long for comfort and solace, but in the end I don’t know where to find it—not in religion for me, alas, nor in the futurity that comes with procreation, nor, ultimately, in art. The poet Alan Shapiro calls those offering easy consolation the “tricksters of solace,” and questions all that blab about death being sweeter than we imagine. I don’t think grievers want reasoned consolations, they want the lost beloved back, and anything else is woefully inadequate.
Rail: Don’t poems provide solace though?
Phillips: I’ve come to look at poems not for solace or consolation, but company: the company of the living, and the company of the dead, through books. There is a moment in Keats’s letters that amounts to a kind of “selfie,” when he describes for his brother George exactly how the last candle in his room is burning down, exactly how his splayed feet look when he pauses in writing the letter and glances down at the floor. It’s really a throw-away moment, but because of its specificity and Keats’s incredible openness, he suddenly becomes vividly present, vividly human, and reading the passage you can feel that for all the differences, being alive was not so different for him that it is for us. I often think about that letter when the house is quiet and I go around shutting off the lights, as my father did when I was the one sound asleep, and as my sons may also do some day. It’s not that reading about Keats tending to his dying brother Tom makes me feel better about watching those I love suffer, but it does make me feel less alone.
Rail: Your poems evoke the medical technology that saves your father’s life, and yet it seems that that your father might somehow be dehumanized by this technology. Can the very technology that is indicative of progress somehow hamper us?
Philllips: The technology that helped save my father’s life, and that failed to save my father-in-law’s life, was, before any thought I had about it, simply a spectacle: the shock of seeing machines breathing for someone, machines pumping blood through his body, wires collecting data and triggering contractions of the heart. The sight of my father in the ICU was a shock, and so some of that imagery comes into the poems not to make the poems strange, but because the experience itself was that surreal.
I don’t worry technology will make us less human—since I felt nothing but gratitude for the doctors and machines that saved my father, and gratitude to those who tried to save my father-in-law. But I do feel a certain nostalgia for the first half of my life—already quaint in terms of technology—when I relied more on people for company and entertainment, in the absence of so many screens.
Rail: Later in the collection, you’ve included an elegy for smoking, in which the absence of the ritual of smoking might be taking away a part of your humanness. Does being healthy somehow sanitize us in a negative way?
Phillips: That love song to smoking is really a love song to a lot of old friends, and how we’d all stand around just happy to have someone to talk to, happy to be exactly where we stood, without other places and people and times constantly leaking in through various glowing portals. And yes, I suppose it is also a celebration of recklessness, of being bad. I don’t mean to sound like an old crank, since my sons are no less teenagers than I was, and no less human and alive! But I do think of that poem as a love song to the past. How can one not feel a pang of longing, knowing we can never go back?
Rail: Your poem “Elegy After Midnight” seems to be an ode to living in the present moment—to, forgive the expression, being “mindful” in some way. And yet the end of this poem bespeaks the impossibility of doing just that.
Phillips: Yeah, I think you’re right that that poem is a complaint against my own addiction to the future. I have always identified with the character of Macbeth, because neither of us are ever satisfied, as soon as Macbeth gets what he wants, he’s already looking ahead, looking to upgrade, hooked on that most addictive of drugs: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. So that’s a poem in defense of the daily, of hearth and home, and thus in praise of my wife and our now long marriage. It’s difficult to be content for long, so that’s a poem in which I tried to tell myself, and my love, not to miss what Rodney Jones calls “The Kingdom of the instant/against the democracy of all time.” As far as the funereal ending, well, the daily doesn’t go on forever, does it? Which is why I felt so urgently in need of a reminder to dwell a bit more on my luck: the luck of sleeping next to a woman I love, of wandering down the hall at the end of the day, as my sons lie dreaming in their beds.
Rail: I feel a sense of idealism permeating some of these poems, but it’s a pragmatic idealism. How do you deal with the tension between pragmatism and idealism as a poet?
Phillips: I think some poems fill up with the world as it is, and some poems with the world as I wish it was. These are two sides of the same coin: lament and praise, past and present, longing and love. If the poems sometimes sound idealistic, I think it is because I don’t always like what experience has taught me, and writing is a brief remedy for that: a way to undo what in life cannot be undone. Most beautiful elegies—from Jonson’s “On My First Son,” to Milton’s “Lycidas”, to Alan Shapiros’s book Song and Dance—resurrect the lost beloved, at least for as long as the poem lasts. And I like your name for that: “a pragmatic idealism.” We know the dead cannot be brought back, but how beautiful to pretend for a while.
Rail: I want to focus on a specific image from the poem “The Night Nurse Comes.” Here you refer to the “jaundiced dents in his forearm”—presumably your father’s forearm. That’s such a precise and evocative image. At what point in your creative process do you hone in on an image like that? When do you put together its syntax?
Phillips: I love that question, because I think a lot of people assume that experience always provides a template for the poem, when in fact for me it is far more often form. The poem began with the line “The night nurse comes to check his pulse and shut off the alarm.” After working and reworking my shitty early drafts, some of the worst clutter got the ax, and what was left started falling into rhymed and half-rhymed couplets. So I said to myself “alarm, alarm, alarm,” And the rhyme “forearm” suddenly set the cameras of memory whirring and zooming in, and I remembered my father’s arms stabbed with needles and tubes, covered with translucent white tape, and dented where the nurse had gripped his flesh as she tightened the blood-pressure cuff. In other words, the form wrote that line more than I did with any conscious will. The admittedly arbitrary, fickle requirement of the couplet led me back to a memory that was there all along, but only discovered under the pressure to come up with a rhyme, that old game we’ve all played since childhood.
Rail: We’ve spoken before about the lack of a genuine market economy in poetry—that poets very rarely make a living through writing alone, as opposed to writers of prose. Is this lack of market pressure a bane or a boon? If there’s no hope of cashing in, is this somehow artistically liberating?
Phillips: As most people know poets rarely cash in like a novelist who gets a six figure deal, and I haven’t yet heard of anyone selling the movie rights to a poem, though anything is possible. That’s not to say that there aren’t poets making a living writing and giving readings and—in the majority of cases—teaching. I fall into that latter category, and teach both writing workshops and English literature. I do feel liberated in many ways by the fact that teaching is my very rewarding profession, leaving me to pursue poetry with as little anxiety as possible about “the market.” I don’t mean that I have no thought for readers, who I long to reach as much as any other writer. But making your dough in some other way means a poet can be patient and wait for something to actually happen before a poem is allowed out of the house. It also means I am free to regard the heaven of work—the hours spent moving words around and mumbling to myself—as poetry’s main form of compensation.
Hirsh Sawhney is the author of a forthcoming novel, South Haven, and the editor of a fiction anthology, Delhi Noir. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The TLS. He teaches at Wesleyan University.