Carl Phillips

Barnes and Noble

Some years ago, a friend wrote to me admiring what he called at the time my “bivalve poems.” I thought he meant how a lot of the poems in my new book consisted of two stanzas of equal length, and that was partly true. Poems like “As for That Piece of Sundown You’ve Been Wanting,” for example:

Like little forges for which the heart too often
gets mistaken, the dogs run ahead of me, just
out of earshot, across what’s a field, and then
a coast: some stones, some sand. Funny how
sorrow more often arrives before honesty, than
the other way round. To my left, a blackness

like the past, but without the past’s precision;
to my right, the ocean…Not so lost as I’d
been thinking, then – or had once, admittedly,
maybe even hope for. Kingdom of what’s left,
still, to be angry at, or forgive. All of the bees
flying at last out of me. We’re traveling north.

Two matching stanzas of six lines each, matching like the two shells of a clam—hence, bivalve. The zone between the two gets navigated by the phrase “a blackness / like the past.” Just before that phrase, the poem had moved from a straightforward scene to an interior observation on the relationship between two abstractions, sorrow and honesty. That observation seems to have come from whatever the past has included, though nothing is specified. And on the other side of the phrase, we arrive at the concrete, i.e., the ocean, and an accompanying clarity about the speaker’s physical position: “not so lost . . . We’re traveling north.” It’s as if the phrase at the poem’s center works as a kind of passageway from the ambiguities of the past to a clarity of the present. Which is to say that a bivalve poem involves more than just splitting the text into equal halves; something significant tends to (needs to?) happen at the poem’s center, or hinge.

• • •

This reminds me of something Alan Dugan once said in a workshop, that there is always something significant—sometimes revelatory—happening at the poem’s dead center. He often used this as a way of determining the poem’s success, both as argument and as a form on the page. If nothing was happening at the center, then something was off—the argument wasn’t quite there yet, or the poem was too long, or too short . . . It’s an idea that I’ve held on to ever since. I suppose, at the most obvious level, it has to do with balance, and to the relationship between form and argument. An English sonnet, in terms of its sonic ordering, falls into three phases of argument, followed by the “resolution” of the final couplet. The form shapes the argument, governs it. But even with the sonnet, the hinge, the shift from lines seven to eight, will yield meaning, or should.

In which case, bivalves don’t have to consist of two stanzas. And maybe any poem can be said to have a bivalve structure. My friend who was interested in my bivalve poems might just as easily have been referring to a poem like “Dominion”:

Sometimes I take the leather hood off – I
refuse to wear it. As if I were king. Or a man
who’s free. Ravens, red-tailed hawks, the usual
flocks of drifting-most-of-the-time strangers
settle the way even things that drift
                                                                have to, and
I don’t care. All over again, I know things that
nobody knows, or wants to – things that, though
prettier, maybe, against the snow
                                                            of memory, can
still hurt, all the same. Any blame falling where
it falls – that random. That moment each day
when the light traveling across what’s always been
mine to at any point take back, or give elsewhere,
becomes just the light again, turning back to dark,
when the branches
                                  stir as they’ve stirred forever,
more tenderly over some of us than others. Sing,
or don’t sing. Help me take this leather hood off –
I refuse to wear it. I’m the king. I’m free.

I see this as a single-stanza poem, with dropped lines—a stanza of twenty lines. The hinge, then, occurs at lines 10–11: essentially, “memory can / still hurt.” This phrase doesn’t quite work the way the one in the previous poem did; it doesn’t navigate from one phase to the next, exactly. This is the kind of hinge, instead, that contains a significant message. While the speaker speaks about agency, detachment, and power, the damaging effects of memory, mentioned at the poem’s center, give context to the speaker’s words, and provide the tension without which a poem can’t resonate beyond its apparent ending. Yes, the speaker seems pretty powerful and assured (“and I don’t care”) but the poem’s center suggests that all of this confidence is a reaction to, and perhaps a shield to be held up against, a very real vulnerability; wounds that the speaker can hide from an addressee, maybe, but not from himself as long as he remembers those wounds.

While the speaker speaks about agency, detachment, and power, the damaging effects of memory, mentioned at the poem’s center, give context to the speaker’s words, and provide the tension without which a poem can’t resonate beyond its apparent ending.

So, on one hand the poem is bivalve, in that it can be split into two halves that revolve around the damaging power of memory. This doesn’t obviate the other, more overt movement of the poem, the slight shifts and reconfiguration of the argument as we move from one section to the next, via the dropped line, the dropped line working as a kind of stanza break, without quite as broad a leap, psychologically, as we’d expect from an actual stanza break. As with the sonnet example earlier, this poem still has an argument that its form enacts; and we can treat it as a bivalve and find further meaning, further context, for the overall argument. We can treat it the way form, in general, should be treated (perhaps most importantly when it comes to free verse)—as a critical tool.

• • •

I’m not quite ready to say that any poem is a bivalve poem. And yet . . .

And yet this way of thinking works with so many different kinds of poems. Here’s Kathy Fagan’s “Split”:

And then, on the thinnest day, I wrapped our shadows
Around me for warmth, the tail-end of orioles like embers
And the ashes they become, nectar left bubbling in a bottle
A reminder of all I never saw coming coming true: field stubble
Alive with rabbits, and the dark above our bed made one breath
And two wings darker by the bat that entered under the window sash:

What dreams did it hear, to find us,
To what hunt was it drawn, to what murmurs, like prey?

Old love, I forget faster and faster –
You always parted my legs with your hand –

And still I understand
Almost nothing.

As laid out, the poem has four movements: stanza one is narrative and zooms in on a particular memory of a bat getting into the bedroom; stanza two speculates on how and why the bat ended up in the lovers’ bedroom; stanza three enters the intimacy of direct address to the lost love, focusing on a sexual gesture between them; and stanza four returns us to the interiority of the lone speaker, who finds herself unable to parse the memories that haunt her. Straightforward enough. The hinge for this twelve-line poem is between lines 6–7. It’s where the window sash meets dream—concrete and abstract, again. More exactly, though, it’s where specificity, which is closed (specifics like orioles, field stubble, bed, and bat), meets the openness of dreams and of speculation. To put it in terms of grammar, the hinge of the poem is where we move from the stability of the declarative mood to the instability of the interrogative (a statement is always more stable than a question). This is what allows me to consider that one of the poem’s subjects is about that liminal space itself, between stability and instability, which—for the poem’s speaker, at least, and for this reader—is the very weather that governs the aftermath of a long and meaningful relationship. Fagan doesn’t overtly state this as a subject of the poem, but the poem’s structure leads us there, a variation on the old show-don’t-tell mantra. This psychological weather becomes the catalyst for forgetting—which implies memory—but the isolated gesture shows us how fragmented, how lacking in context memory can be. For this reason, we find ourselves no closer to understanding what we remember a past that meant something, but what?

• • •

So, we’ve seen how the center or hinge of a poem can contain meaning. Fagan’s poem shows how the hinge can generate meaning, through juxtaposition. Sometimes, though, the hinge can work primarily as structuring device, as a way to get the reader from one place to another—which is to say, it’s more part of the poem’s musculature, and gives an athleticism to the poem, even as it also promotes momentum. Here’s Lucille Clifton’s “leaving fox”:

so many fuckless days and nights.
only the solitary fox
watching my window light
barks her compassion.
i move away from her eyes,
from the pitying brush
of her tail
to a new place and check
for signs. so far
i am the only animal.
i will keep the door unlocked
until something human comes.

All one stanza here. The argument/action is delivered via sentence/sentence fragment. By that reckoning, there are five movements. The first gives the context. The next gives the situation: the speaker looks at a fox watching the speaker at her window. Then the speaker’s gaze moves away from the fox to a space that includes the speaker—likely the house. There, the speaker determines she is still alone, and the final sentence announces her resolve to make it possible for another to join her eventually, by leaving the door open.

Treating this poem as a bivalve, the hinge is found at “from the pitying brush / of her tail.” It’s a visual pivot. The line just above this hinge has the speaker looking at the fox’s eyes, the line just after it arrives at “a new place,” away from the fox, back to the speaker. The camera action, as it were, works thus: fox eyes -> fox tail -> new place, wherein we traverse the length of the fox’s body to get to the space past it. The hinge gets us from one point to another. In this sense, it’s part of the musculature of the poem, which, for me, lends it an athleticism—it makes the reading of the poem feel visceral, as if we can feel the poem turning even as we read it, turning in the way a muscle would turn as we make a physical gesture with our body.

And yet I also find something more than mere structure here. The hinge offers us two ways to see a fox’s tail: as a literal tail and as a figurative “pitying brush.” Of course, a tail can’t show pity. Rather, human beings impose human emotion and psychology on non-human things, and what they impose often reveals something of the particular human’s sensibility. Clifton’s human speaker sees the fox’s tail as pitying, because she wants to see it that way; that is, she would like some pity, even as she would like to believe that the bark of the fox, earlier, means compassion for the speaker, which it does not. Presumably, it’s her aloneness that makes the speaker long for pity and compassion—she’s the only human around, and while there is another animal, i.e., the fox, Clifton’s speaker can say “so far / i am the only animal” because she is the only animal in the room, the house from which she watches the fox. For me, the hinge of Clifton’s poem generates a meditation on solitude versus loneliness—that becomes part of the poem’s meaning—and about human versus animal. While there are plenty of gregarious animals, a fox isn’t one of them. Foxes are solitary, and presumably therefore not lonely. Humans are the ones more prone to loneliness when alone. While the fox may be turned to for compassion, the fox is actually the foil that throws our human isolation and vulnerability into disturbing relief. Again, this isn’t what I get from what the poem overtly tells me, but from the juxtaposition that occurs at the poem’s hinge.

Frank Bidart’s poem “A Coin for Joe, with the Image of a Horse; c. 350-325 BC” is definitely a poem in two equal parts, deliberately so, but it seems to be working differently:



                                chip of the closed,—L O S T world, toward whose unseen grasses

this long-necked emissary horse

                                                                            eagerly still
                                                                            stretches, to graze


World; Grass;

stretching Horse;—ripe with hunger, bright circle
of appetite, risen to feed and famish us, from exile underground . . . for

you       chip of the incommensurate
closed world      A n g e l

Yes, there are five lines in each section, but if there’s a hinge it’s the asterisk that separates the two. I don’t find particular meaning there. Bidart obviously means his title literally—the poem is a coin, and is structured so that we get to see both sides of that coin. But I think of this poem’s structure more as a mirror. The structure is chiastic, and meaning is gained by holding lines up to their mirror images—or the transformed versions of those images. The poem opens with a coin, for example, and ends with an angel, a pairing then of the worldly (or material) and the otherworldly. Line two’s “chip of the closed” is matched by line nine’s “chip of the incommensurate,” two opposites, again. The horse of line three finds a match in line eight’s abstraction “of appetite, risen to feed and famish us,” as if the horse could be seen as a form of appetite, maybe more a vessel for appetite, the enactment of appetite in more concrete form.

We are given two boxes of color, usually one above the other, and any argument to be made gets made by the degrees to which the two spaces begin to resonate toward and away from each other.

Is this a bivalve poem? Technically, yes, because it falls into two equal parts. But I would put it in a slightly different category of bivalves, for which I don’t have a name, but which work the way many Rothko paintings work: we are given two boxes of color, usually one above the other, and any argument to be made gets made by the degrees to which the two spaces begin to resonate toward and away from each other. For me, as I pair parts of each half of the Bidart poem, I find myself reading the poem as, at some level, about transformation, from the concrete to the abstract, from the material to the immaterial, from the ongoingness of hunger (a horse that “eagerly still / stretches, to graze”) to the finality of death (“exile underground”), the world as lost and as closed—and yet the closed, limited nature of the world is also matched by its being “incommensurate,” at once both insufficient and excessive. It’s the form that brings me to this line of thinking—not just the poem’s bivalve form, but Bidart’s decision to have the halves mirror each other.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here, if only briefly, another kind of bivalve mirror form, the one where the lines of the first half of the poem are exactly repeated, in reverse order, for the second half. A perfect example, to which I refer the reader because of length, is Susan Stewart’s “Two Brief Views of Hell.” A briefer example is Mary Szybist’s “On Gravity”:

I bought a very beautiful hand-colored book on diseases of the mouth
To capture the sensation of mouth at sunset
People say you forget about death, but you don’t
My lips curve upward in spite of themselves.
Can you smell the cadaver in me?
The hey sugar, my cherry
The waves under my tongue, the starfish pushing its stomach
Through its mouth, the waves under my tongue
The hey sugar, my cherry
Can you smell the cadaver in me?
My lips curve upward in spite of themselves.
People say you forget about death, but you don’t.
To capture the sensation of mouth as sunset
I bought a very beautiful hand-colored book on diseases of the mouth.

Szybist has done a bit of a variation, not just repeating the lines exactly, but adding a bit right at the hinge of the poem: “the starfish pushing its stomach / Through its mouth” occurs only the one time, and speaks directly to what the poem is doing at that moment, in a sense inverting its entire body, like the starfish. I don’t see this hinge as trying to add a layer of meaning to the poem or as structurally necessary; rather, it seems a wry wink on the poet’s part, as if to say “I know exactly what I’m doing, but you didn’t until just this second, did you?” It’s an odd poem that juggles death and sex, beauty and disease—how intriguing, and perhaps how much more necessary than we might think at first, that the hinge of the poem reserves a space for humor.

Another, slightly different Rothko-like bivalve poem is Thomas Campion’s “Now Winter Nights Enlarge.” It isn’t a mirror, like Bidart’s; if we bent the page where the stanzas break, we wouldn’t get an exact match. That is, the poem isn’t chiastic. But it does repeat the stanza form—the poem would be a mirror poem if the two stanzas were next to each other, rather than on top of one another. Campion’s poem is closer to a Rothko than Bidart’s is; we have the same form repeated, but each has different content:

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine!
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques and Courtly sights,
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

I don’t find meaning in the juxtaposition of the two central lines: “Sleep’s leaden spells remove” and “This time doth well dispense” don’t resonate for me. But as with the Bidart, I get a lot out of the shifts between the two halves—the white space between the stanzas works a bit like the asterisk did in the Bidart poem, as simple separating device that, because of the parallel structure of the two stanzas (each an eleven-line stanza of iambic trimeter lines, with a penultimate line of iambic pentameter), invites me to compare and contrast the two—again, like the Rothko boxes of color. And what I find is a juxtaposition of narration and didacticism that becomes an invitation to meditation. The first stanza informs us of the time of year, and suggests how that time of year should be spent, in revelry, wine, and love, all of which will act as the antidote to “Sleep’s leaden spells,” to which long winter nights are otherwise apparently conducive. We have narrative progression, from the time of year, to the activity of chimneys blazing in response, to cups overflowing, which will lead to and serve as backdrop for love, revels, etc. The second stanza switches abruptly and definitively to the didactic mode, offering what sound like axioms (“Much speech hath some defence,” “All do not all things well”) backed up by examples for proof (some can dance, others are good at riddles, we all have our strengths), culminating in the lesson that, yes, love is fleeting and scant, but it’s not without purpose, since it can distract from tedium. Love, which had seemed the powerful antidote to sleepiness, and had seemed somehow triumphant, gets reduced to mere distraction, and an ephemeral one at that. And yet I don’t read the poem’s ending as an unhappy one. Rather, by poem’s end, I feel as if love has been put into realistic, pragmatic context. It may be part of the revelry of long winter nights, and be attached to the wonder and divine harmony and youthfulness that attend those nights, but love has its limitations—so do we all, says the poem. Love can only do so much, but what it does it does well—and it does well what other things than love can’t do. Just as, working back through that second stanza, is the case with us human beings. Like love, our time is limited, but we each have our unique contributions, our particular value—which, Campion implies, is a distraction from that other night, the figurative night that is the fact of death. There’s something comforting in that, I find.

Again, this way of reading Campion’s poem is generated by the poem’s structure, its being divided into equal halves that look identical, which invites comparison, and brings the poem that tension without which a poem cannot resonate with argument or meaning. One stanza is just story, the other just instruction. It’s in their resisting and being attracted to each other that the two stanzas make of Campion’s words a resonant poem, which is to say, a poem.

• • •

I said earlier that bivalve poems don’t have to be divided into two stanzas. They also don’t have to be poems of even-numbered lines, despite all of my examples thus far. I’ll finish with an example of an odd-lined poem, Carolina Ebeid’s “June 26th”:

And they shall hold beeswax candles
says the book the small light shall keep
their vigilance the weakness of one
says the book shall be enfolded
by the strength of the other bring

rings of white gold bring attention
bring persistence bring faith
in the persistence of what seems
most fated to die says the book
& do this when gutters river

with melted water do this amidst
friends & flowers crown the other
with wreaths made of wire & herbs
the crowning gentles sacrifice
says the book made of sayings & doings

This poem of fifteen lines and no punctuation opens with three uses of the emphatic future (“shall hold,” “shall keep,” “shall be enfolded”), then quickly deploys no fewer than seven imperatives, before ending in the simple declarative of “the crowning gentles sacrifice,” all this said by—or written in—a book that goes unnamed but is clearly a book of instruction, a book “made of sayings & doings.” And the hieratic nature of the instructions suggests that the book is a religious text. The mention of sacrifice could mean that some kind of actual sacrifice is being prepared for—I think of Greco-Roman animal sacrifices, where the victim was sometimes garlanded before being slaughtered. But with each reading this poem seems a possible epithalamion, in which sacrifice might be meant more figuratively, as in Sappho’s wedding songs, where the bride’s virginity can be seen as a form of sacrifice, the loss of virginity as the evidence of the sacrifice of girlhood in exchange for womanhood. Not that virginity is in any way at issue here. But the coming together of friends and of flowers, the rings of white gold, these surely point to a wedding, as do such ideas as providing strength to one another, and faith, and yes, sacrifice, if nothing else than the fact that marriage requires compromise—easily a version of sacrifice.

Because there are fifteen lines, there won’t be a hinge, but a central line around which the two halves pivot—that’s line 8: “in the persistence of what seems.” It’s part of a larger imperative, to “bring faith / in the persistence of what seems / most fated to die,” a line that I translate as “believe in the immortality of what seems most mortal,” or “don’t be fooled by what seems temporal; it only seems that way, it’s really eternal.” But if I look just at the words that comprise line 8, that line offers me another angle from which to approach the poem overall. It speaks to how what is apparent persists; but by implication there’s also what isn’t apparent: what of that? The line sets in motion a line of thinking wherein what appears to be the case and what is in fact the case get considered together. Seeming versus being. In the context of the poem, this idea seems especially relevant. There are the immediate trappings of marriage—the stuff of weddings (candles, rings, flowers, friends)—and there is the unseen, the un-seeable of marriage itself, something that is only as real as the mutual belief in it on the part of the betrothed. This requires the faith that the poem mentions, faith being another abstraction, like fidelity. We believe in a partner’s fidelity because we have faith in him, not because of anything that proves it on a day to day basis—anything could be happening in our absence, but the relationship rests on our belief in what is and isn’t happening. All of this is separate from the larger sentence of which the isolated line is a part. But the isolated part has its own meaning, a quieter one, because less overt, but no less important. And again this is the result of how the structure can direct us to that pivot line, which can then be used as another critical tool to bear upon the poem overall.

Whether a poem is already divided into two parts, or we decide to do so as a reader/critic, the structure will almost always yield meaning that the words alone can’t carry or in some cases aren’t meant to.

This relationship between seeming and being is analogous to how I approach poems in general. I look at the overt—the apparent argument of the poem, what the words actually say, as arranged. But then I look at less obvious arguments, ones that the structure either enacts or points to—sometimes it does both. In some ways, I think of this as the essence, the actual being, of a poem—not what it says, but how it says it. Whether a poem is already divided into two parts, or we decide to do so as a reader/critic, the structure will almost always yield meaning that the words alone can’t carry or in some cases aren’t meant to. Sometimes the meaningful tension is exactly the one between what a poem says and what its structure, in saying, contradicts. To read a poem without having given thought to how it’s been put together is maybe not to miss the point entirely, but it surely means missing whole worlds of other possibilities for interpretation.

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.