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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Elegies for the Water - Philip Lee Williams

What follows cannot be a review because Philip Lee Williams is a longtime penpal of mine; what it is, instead, is a celebration of his newest book. A much-laureled writer, Phil is known for his nine novels, including All the Western Stars, The True and Authetic History of Jenny Dorset, and A Distant Flame, for which he won The Michael Shaara Award. His three non-fiction books are notable as well, the latest being In the Morning: Reflections from First Light.

Now he has published Elegies for the Water, a book of poems with Mercer University Press. It's a lovely book that has received high praise from writers Kay Stripling Byer (a poet I knew back when I was a little high school sprat in Cullowhee, North Carolina), David Bottoms, Anthony Grooms, and Judson Mitcham. Mercer has given him space--at 105 pages, the book exceeds the usual length for a poetry book and is hence a bargain--and made a physically pretty book as well, the jacket embroidery continuing inside the book.

I'm glad to see this book, for Phil has long quietly written poems. He is also one of the kinder people on this blue and green planet of Earth, and I see much of the interior Phil captured in his words. If you have a question for him, please leave it in the comments--and he'll see any comments as well.

Here's a poem that might serve as an introduction to his physical place on the land, a swath of forest in Oconee County Georgia edged by Wildcat Creek. I pick it because it could be a beginning, though it is a later poem in the book, and because it is sharp and simple in form, a good place to start listening for his voice:


You poets of gritty urban realism,
You poets of curb sludge and Bukowski bars,
You poets of apartments & ampersands,
You poets of lower-case first-person pronouns,
You poets of irony and cigarettes,
You poets of blind alleys and fire escapes,
You poets where poetry must be slammed,
You poets of savagery and its victories:

I give you the madness of whippoorwills,
I give you the intoxication of deciduous wind,
I give you the flicker's pine-tree hutch,
I give you the smoke of mist at dawn,
I give you the blindness of moondark pastures,
I give you the bloody calf against the cow in snow,
I give you the creek and the river, cuts in earth,
I give you what the country knows.

And this one reminds me of Phil, a modest man, a sympathetic man. It also has a clear form, moving from "nots" to what is.


I am not reminded of David when I shave,
The boy with the sling to slug that thug Goliath
To death. I am not reminded of a lessser Pope
Slowly going to seed in the drunken palace
Of the Borgia kin. I am not reminded daily
Of Beat Generation larcenist or Ansel Adams
With his Yosemite eye on the black-and-white
World of the West. I am not reminded of monarchs
Or sun-stained farmers or Ralph Vaughan Williams
Orchestrating English folk songs because he thinks
The poor are more noble. I'm not even reminded
Of the poor Neanderthal man, diorama-bound
In the Museum of Natural History, always looking
A little befuddled by the simplest task, his big brain
Too much for anyone to carry around and use
With any facility. When I shave I'm reminded
Of the anonymity of mirrors, how they have no face
Of their own and must borrow whomever wanders
Past and for minutes be a face among no crowd,
Brilliant mimics who mistake left for right but gleam
With each new face they frame, even if it's mine.

And here is one where he plucks an image from the ancient, inexhaustible poet's treasure of moon. It is also an expression of family from this father of two.


The moon is inexpensive tonight,
Cracked cockle shell, a porcelain chip,
Unaddressed by lovers or ancient poets
With wars or unspeakable grievances.
When no one is looking, I take it
For myself and hold it in my cupped hands
And see the bright craters of this life.

It is not time for planting yet or harvest,
Not time for the old ones to rise into chalklight
With their regrets and unsteady galaxies.
It is not time for the gibbous for the full.
And yet I hold the creamy slice with such delight
That quiet creatures come to me, step on step,
To ask if I am savior of their long-lost daytime.

I am not. I was only shopping evening stars
For my daughter when I saw the potsherd moon
Above my neighbor's hayfield, took it down
To light my sacrificial palms. To love most
We must earn least. And so this marked-down
Moon was mine for the taking. And now it's
Back in the paste of zircon stars, free and freely

Given, taken, shaped for love on this cold night.

Here is Phil, the man who has written well of the special beauties of his own spot on the globe and is known for his nature writing. A whole life is summed up in a gesture over water, the childhood glimmering in the water, the new beginning, the dying fall:


I cast the line far out, away from reel
And hand, the configurations of delight
Apparent in musculature, the whispering
Horizon, one small splash out there.
I grieve for water. Clouds spread east
Across the surface, green and patient
For a breeze. Bream come up toward me.
I lay across the delicacies of that surface
And drift out into the lake with birds
Low and skimming small familiar ripples.
I could sink toward hydrilla and childhood.
I could spread my fins like wet sails,
Get caught by eddies, pushed on south
Toward the dam. I could exhale geese.
At the end of discovery is the fair beginning
Of another cast. I make that old motion
With its splendid spell, its dying arch.
I find that I am caught on this edge
Of sand and water, taut against the lines.
I find consolation. I rise to the bait.

And here is more of new beginning, set against winter and failings:


My sweet land is not yet growing
With honeysuckle and shadow.
Along the creek slopes, the moss clings
To winter, damp fibers ringing
To memory of wildflower and sun.
All winter I have felt the jonquils
Bursting from my skin, cats crazy
For warm rolling grass,
The silver flames of spring colors along my creek.
I know if one more season comes
A chance will rise for me
To brush these stray failings back,
To rush once more at love
As if it were seasonal,
The sound of wings, the color of light.

And here is the Phil who has been gifted to hear, more clearly and more perilously than most, the sound of time's winged chariot:


Old men know the limits of small countries.
Each nation's boundary lies from stone to stone
In the green pasture's slope. Each land has a name,
And it is an old man's last name that builds
A boundary. We travel there, dreaming they rise
From street to street in their capital towns.

I want to stop defending what I cannot own.
I want to lie, still living, among them, in their towns,
And put my ear to the soft warm earth
And hear them whisper soon enough, soon enough.
In sleeping robes, you will be a ruler soon enough.

There are other poems I could include in this tiny anthology--"Awakening," "Moving the Cemetery," "Rainy Day Ants," "Album Leaf," "Adam's Disappointment," and many more. But it would be better for you to go and search out this carefully made book and discover what else is hidden and what else is flourishing in its pages.


  1. I particularly like that last poem, the way it is in touch with the land. I don't know much about poetry - I always feel I need it explained to me, but I really love that.

    I think you've done your friend proud Marly. I sounds like a very fine book, and I really like the cover. How do you mean that it is embroidered inside...really embroidered?

  2. Clare,

    Oh, no--it's just the drawings remind me of a very fluid embroidery, sometimes in an outline stitch, sometimes filled in.

    You are always saying that, but sometimes you write poems!


    Thanks to people who have been sending email notes--I do forward them to Phil. And thanks to Dave Bonta for catching a typo in one of the poems.

  3. What a generous sharing of poetry; thank you for alerting me to this. Phil is wonderful poet. I particularly like the Moon poem, and there are lines in others that take my breath away.
    And I am a very very snobby critical reader.
    (though nice. Always pretty nice).

  4. Many blessings to my dear friend Marly, one of MY favorite writers, too. We've known each other by email for many years, and I've read almost everything she's ever published. Clare, I hadn't thought of the cover as embroidery, either, until Marly saw it, but she's completely right, of course. That insight has opened all kind of new images for me. And jarvenpa, thanks so much for your warm support. It all leaves me humbled.

  5. These are lovely! I'm so glad your recent comment on my review of Ingrid Hill's novel led me here to discover a new poet -- two new poets! A delightful gift of this first week of National Poetry Month. Thank you!

  6. Hi Mindy--

    Glad you liked Phil's poems.

    Likewise, here, on e-meeting a new writer...

  7. What more to add from Marly's own perfect praise of such lovely poems. Thanks Marly for sharing them, and forgive me for taking so long to get to them. I hope Philip will have his publisher send a review copy to Oyster Boy Review (POB 83, Chapel Hill, NC 27514). It may be next year before we get it reviewed, but we will. All delight to Richard for making such firmly formed jewels.

  8. Hi Jeffery--

    My mother and I just met Phil for lunch a few days ago in Madison, Georgia...

    I'll make sure he sees this!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.