On Influence

Carl Phillips

Barnes and Noble

When I was first asked to write on this subject, I imagined discussing what I’ve learned from such poets as Cavafy, Olds, and Bidart, when it comes in particular to the body and desire and where that desire can lead and how to speak about that, where to find the necessary openness—the nerve that allows us to trust being open—about what’s forbidden, which is to say, what deserves to be shown—insists on it, even. Or I thought I might discuss how Robert Hayden’s determination to write about anything he wanted to—sometimes race, sometimes art, sometimes secrecy, sometimes myth—offered a multifaceted artistic self as a realistic option for a writer of color. Likewise, the Jamesian sentences of Graham, Brock-Broido’s painstakingly bejeweled syntax and diction—these became models for a resistance to governing modes of poem-making that was crucial for me when I first began writing my own poems.

I certainly learned all sorts of things about craft from the writers mentioned above, but just by how I speak of them it becomes clear that I’m seeing them largely as psychological mentors, writers whose work showed what was possible in terms of how to think about the self, and about self-expression; writers who all have in common that they have shown me what courage can look like for a writer; or perhaps it’s not courage, so much as a belief that, for oneself, there is no other way than this way to be, on paper and in the life away from it. And though this is something that can be seen poem by poem, I find that it’s the body of work as a whole, over time, that has given me the guidance I needed.

But I’m interested here in how individual poems often have their own influence, outside the larger career of a poet. What I mean is, when we speak of literary influence, we often give the names of poets; we point to specific poems less often, or so it seems to me. With this in mind, I want to point to a single specific poem by a writer whose entire body of work I’ve read many times, and yet I return to certain individual poems routinely. I’ve only just figured out why. I think it has to do with how to build a poem—I say build, rather than write, deliberately, in the way that, in the books of one of my favorite mystery writers, Joseph Hansen, the detective David Brandstetter is always stopping to build a drink, as opposed to making one. To build a drink speaks to the sense of layers, liquid over ice, but also vermouth, say, over gin, whatever garnish over all of it. To make such a drink reduces the process to mere combination, without nuance. Linda Gregg’s “Sigismundo” is an oft-returned-to example of a poem that continues to teach me so much about how poems can be built:

I want to point to a single specific poem by a writer whose entire body of work I’ve read many times, and yet I return to certain individual poems routinely.

The fete confused me. Guests played the part of gods.
There was a woman with white skin who stood
with her pale robe open all night throwing roses.
A lady found me in the only quiet room and demanded
I take her to him. I refused even when she begged,
and went down by the water to think of something else.
Sun rose that morning on the torches.
Cool air over the tepid sea. Sigismundo the Beautiful.
Out for himself. Torturer of doves. A killer of cities.
Killer of wife before breakfast. Sigismundo,
who built a church to a woman not beautiful,
with roses cut in the stone.
All through my boyhood I was told I’d walk hand in hand
with death. I chose the good, and cried
when they marred the statues.
But there is nothing, nothing to say about my life.
Unmerciful Sigismundo did many wrongs and his people loved him
and he will live forever. I who go down like Persephone
with my accomplishments of silence and weeping unrecorded,
even I if I were a girl would answer Yes, I know how to swim.
Lie for the chance to drown in that blue water of his.

Here is a basic breakdown of the poem’s parts:

Lines 1–7: We enter the poem’s situation, in medias res. There are characters—guests, a woman, a lady, and an I about whom we know nothing.
8–12: descriptions of Sigismundo in legend-like terms
13–16: We learn of the I’s childhood, and subsequent dismissal of his life.
17–18: Sigismundo, by contrast, via choices and the reputation they’ve led to, will live forever.
18–22: The I recognizes his inferiority to Sigismundo and his willingness to sacrifice himself to him (if the I were a girl).

So, the poem opens with a dramatic situation that is essentially abandoned for a poem contrasting two different ways of being, two different psychologies. Another way to see this is that the poem is built by stacking part of a narrative poem on top of part of a meditative poem or dramatic monologue (perhaps most accurate, a dramatic monologue that contains a meditation). Perhaps other poems could have taught me this, but Gregg’s is the one that I found first. It took me years to understand that what kept drawing me to the poem was its refusal to be just one thing or the other. I can imagine a workshop, for example, that would have encouraged Gregg either to flesh out the narrative she began with, or to maybe delete the narrative entirely, and begin at line 7.

Another way this poem is built is at the level of sentence and fragment. Lines 1–7 are all sentences; 8–12 is all fragments; 13–20, sentences; 21–22, fragments. Building the poem this way allows for variation, of course, but also unpredictability, since there’s not a steady alternation between sentence and fragment. Two things that are fairly steady throughout the poem are tense and grammatical mood. The poem is almost entirely governed by the past tense and the declarative mood, with the exception of the sentence that begins at line 18 (“I who go down like Persephone . . . ”), when Gregg shifts to the present tense, and the main verb of the sentence is in the subjunctive (“[I] would answer Yes”), both changes occurring precisely when the speaker acknowledges his negligible life and his willingness to sacrifice it. The shift I mention is another example of unpredictability that comes directly from how the poem is built—we are set up for a delivery that never wavers, until it does, just once.

This unpredictability—in the poem’s genre, syntax, and grammar—is a form of not knowing, and it seems to me that not knowing is very much the theme of Gregg’s poem. Whose fete is this, and where does it happen, and when? If the guests play gods, their actual identity is unknown. The woman and lady are both nameless. Sigismundo himself, for all the descriptions, remains unknown, maybe finally unknowable. The speaker, for all that he tells us about his life, seems ultimately only to reveal his inadequacy, not himself.

This unpredictability—in the poem’s genre, syntax, and grammar—is a form of not knowing.

I say he doesn’t reveal himself, but he does reveal a strange relationship to gender. The speaker is genderless until we learn that he’s male with the reference to boyhood more than halfway through the poem. This is reinforced, toward the end, by the phrase “even I if I were a girl”—so he’s not a girl. And yet that sentence opens with the speaker comparing himself to Persephone, who’s not only female but is associated especially with daughterhood, wifehood, and more disturbingly, with rape by a god who forces her to be his wife. I can’t say what this means, exactly, about the speaker, but it is this mystery about gender, on the part of the speaker, that first got me to notice at least one more aspect of how this poem is built, namely, by fairly routinely punctuating the poem with female figures, in such a way as to generate a pattern:

A woman with white skin with her robe open (pallor, exposure)
A lady demanding to be taken to Sigismundo (but denied, by a speaker who will turn out to be male)
The same lady, begging
A wife whom Sigismundo killed
A “not beautiful” woman for whom he built a church
A girl as a simile, in a sentence that makes it clear that girls don’t swim (by custom/law), wherever this takes place

What we get is a pattern of women as vulnerable, subordinate, subject to male suppression, via—variously—denial, murder, judgment about external appearance, rape, and societal custom or law.

I used to read Gregg’s poem as a kind of monument to Sigismundo, whose name is, after all, both the poem’s title and its final word. But if so, it’s a monument built in part of women who become the evidence not only of Sigismundo’s brutality, but of a more general male indifference to women as equals. It’s a world in which to be unmerciful wins the day, wins the people’s favor, even the favor of such people as the speaker who tells us that, despite his passive nature (compared to Sigismundo’s), he too (“even I”) would take the action of drowning for Sigismundo. The phrasing suggests that what prevents the speaker from making this sacrifice is that he isn’t a girl. Another inequality—to sacrifice oneself for a man is an option for girls and women only, not for men. Which is to say, masculinity and femininity, whatever we might think of those terms, are fixed spaces to which there’s little resistance, apparently, within the world Gregg conjures here.

Gregg’s poem continues to influence how I think about poems, specifically how poems consist of parts, and how the order in which we put those parts together can be a way in which the poem reveals its meaning, another layer of argument or theme, beyond the immediately apparent one in the poem’s content. It has also taught me about the work of grammar and syntax, and how these can give variation and movement to a poem—muscularity, as I like to call it. Finally, Gregg’s combining of different poetic genres strikes me as proof that how we build a poem can be its own statement. Gregg takes the fragments of two stock genres of the English poetic tradition—i.e., the largely male-dominated tradition—and fuses them, into what? A monument to Sigismundo’s version of masculinity? If so, it’s an ironic one. “Sigismundo” is also an impressively built assertion of nothing less than female empowerment and artistic freedom.

Carl Phillips is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Reconnaissance, winner of the PEN Poetry Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.