In any poem, and particularly in a Carl Phillips poem, syntax can indicate an emotional state, and turns of thought can reflect physical, sometimes erotic journeying. For example, in “Swimming” from Phillips’s newest book Wild is the Wind, he writes:
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related.
Lucretius was an Epicurean classical poet who had a lot to say about why things are the way they are (turns out: atoms)—but for a moment I thought Phillips may have misattributed the image of the foundering ship. I trusted him more than myself, but what was I remembering, and why did it seem so apt?
“Swimming” names the feeling that comes when we are sure of our safety, even when, or especially when, in view of catastrophe. This seems a kind of self-directed tenderness rather than schadenfreude, and it seems to me that it is distance that makes it so. Everything glimpsed of the sea from shore is its own type of theater, only tenuously connected to the world on which we walk. We’re drawn to oceanic vastness, but relieved to be unable to fully engage with it. As Marianne Moore notes of the ocean: “It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, / but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” The sea, sublime as it is, resists us. It inspires awe but will not be handled.
Moore is a digression, since Phillips doesn’t allude to her but to the second book of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which states that:
‘Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters, from the land
To watch another’s labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because ‘tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared
For Lucretius, it’s full-eyed knowledge that makes the view of another’s suffering important. There but for the grace of the gods go I. A narrow escape can only mean something, can only prompt revelation, if one knows the specific danger one has dodged. Otherwise, it’s just a Tuesday.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to think of The Inferno, in which Dante’s main character gets a guided tour of the damnation of others. It’s not that he needs to be scared straight, but there is something about witnessing the pit’s intricate pains firsthand that becomes necessary to his own salvation. Thinking about this, I remembered that the opening of The Inferno’s first canto contains an image strikingly similar to the foundering ships of Phillips and Lucretius.
Dante’s figure wakes in a dark wood, not knowing how he got there. As he begins to pull himself together, he feels like a swimmer who:
… still panting breath,
Now safe upon the shore, out of the deep,
Might turn for one last look on the dangerous waters.
This is the feeling, an adrenaline-spiked solace, known to those who escape drowning, coughing on all fours on the sand. He isn’t witnessing a shipwreck from afar and counting himself lucky, but rather, remembering peril first-hand. He turns for another look at the water because he thinks he might still find himself there. More and more it all seems related.