Poem of the Week: “Leda, After the Swan” by Carl Phillps

Perhaps,

in the exaggerated grace
of his weight
settling,

the wings
raised, held in
strike-or-embrace
position,

I recognized
something more
than swan, I can’t say.

There was just
this barely defined
shoulder, whose feathers
came away in my hands,

and the bit of world
left beyond it, coming down

to the heat-crippled field,

ravens the precise color of
sorrow in good light, neither
black nor blue, like fallen
stitches upon it,

and the hour forever,
it seemed, half-stepping
its way elsewhere–

then
everything, I
remember, began
happening more quickly.

Carl Phillips is without a doubt my favorite American poet writing today. Born in 1959, he currently teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.  “Leda, After the Swan” was published in 1992’s In the Blood.

I love this poem. I love all the commas (even in the title) that force you to pause, as if the poem and its contents are happening slowly and yet the events can not be stopped. As Leda remembers the swan, his intent is ambiguous (is it strike or embrace?). As a reader, you get a sense of an out-of-body experience, focusing more on the surroundings–the field, the color of the ravens– than Leda’s embodied experience of the moment.

The line “this barely defined / shoulder whose  feathers / came away in my hands” simultaneously breaks and fills my heart.

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