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"For some reason, I have only thought of the phrase 'at bay' as meaning something like 'at a safe distance.' I was interested to learn that its chief meaning comes from hunting, that moment when an animal is forced to turn and face its attackers. Originally I wanted to call this poem 'Artillery,' after the George Herbert poem."
—Carl Phillips

At Bay

Carl Phillips, 1959

Coral-bells purpled the fallen sycamore leaves, dead, the dead 
versus those who attempted death, versus those who effectively 
fashioned out of such attempts a style akin to electric guitar 
shimmer swelling and unswelling like starlings when they first 

lift off, or like stars when, from their fixed sway, they come 
suddenly loose, any man letting at last go of a career spent 
swallowing—trying to—catastrophe’s jewel-studded tail, un-
swallowable, because   

                                    holy, in the way of fanfare, its gift for 
persuasion, how it can make of what’s ordinary, and therefore 
flawed of course, a thing that’s holy, for a time it seemed so, 
didn’t restlessness seem to be, little god of making, no less 

impossible in the end than any of the gods, where’s the holiness, 
they sleep never, they tire infrequently, to be tired bores them, 
distraction refined by damage would be their drug of choice 
hands down, if they could choose, even they don’t get to.

Copyright © 2013 by Carl Phillips. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 3, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by Carl Phillips. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 3, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips

Born on July 23, 1959, Carl Phillips's collection The Rest of Love won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry

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So that each
is its own, now--each has fallen, blond stillness.
Closer, above them,
the damselflies pass as they would over water, 
if the fruit were water,
or as bees would, if they weren't
somewhere else, had the fruit found
already a point more steep
in rot, as
poem
When the Famous Black Poet speaks,
I understand

that his is the same unnervingly slow 
rambling method of getting from A to B
that I hated in my father,
my father who always told me
don't shuffle.

The Famous Black Poet is
speaking of the dark river in the mind
that runs thick with the heroes of color,
Jackie R