Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV Nonfiction |

The Lantern, the Lightning, the Sea, and the Raft

The relationship between pattern and the meaningful disruption of that pattern gives poetry the muscularity required to become memorable.

—Carl Phillips, “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax”

All Carl Phillips poems are used with the permission of the author. Readers are invited to read in their entirety the poems linked to from their titles.

I: The Lantern

In winter 2021, I went through a kind of social death. Which was weird. At the time, I thought myself properly surrounded by love and nestled deep within the safety of others. I had been in the US for exactly ten years by then, and against awful odds, I had finally secured residency and access to resources like healthcare and income. I’ve felt like a hummingbird, I once confessed to the ones I loved, a thousand wingbeats, a thousand moves per second, but now, like a tree, I can root. I had been away from my Bahamas and my own blood for far too long, and so for once, I held close the people around me, those who I loved and who loved me back, and I bestowed in them a wish for longevity: I called them family.

But winter is a reaper, the cruelest of the seasons. Lives, foliage, bonds, and energy might enter its gauntlet at one end and not make it out the other. Some of the people I loved levied violence to resolve a conflict between us, and the others, in the face of that violence, had too large a capacity for inaction. And so, though my suffering was public, I suffered alone.

It was already nine or so months into the pandemic, and various societal shutdowns had blurred my days into weeks, weeks into seasons, and entire seasons into one block of experience neutrally coded in my mind and in my memory. The bad light between me and the people I loved interrupted that loop. I was awake, and winter was suddenly apparent—and brutal. And what felt like a real fracture had cracked open in my mind—wounding, especially, the landscapes that house my language. I tried, but couldn’t say or fathom what was happening to me. It was beyond my imagination and capacity for description.

During any hard season, I would usually turn to a bevy of poetry to help me ford a path through and toward language, but at the time, it felt like no poet or poetry could reach me. None except—gratefully—the work of Carl Phillips. In his poems, I found a speaker who wasn’t interested in any narrative per se, but more so interested in thinking; in fashioning (or discovering) a nuance, a clarity between thoughts and ideas. It seemed there was only a thinking mind and what that thinking mind had access to as his poems unraveled on the page. And I felt as though I was in a similar context—abandoned, stuck with my own stammering mind and whatever worldly sensations remained within reach. Aptly, that winter, “Blizzard”—from Carl Phillips’s Silverchest—was the lodestar that helped me cross the tundra.[1]

“Blizzard” begins with grief and poses it as the “precipitate” left behind by agony. And I believed it, vividly knew it to be true. Phillips’s speaker begins without context, as they often do.

After agony had left his body to find another,
or in search of no one, just agony on its
own for once, merely cruising,
something stayed, like
                                  a precipitate—grief, maybe,
that’s what they said

Who’s the speaker referring to? What occasioned the agony? Who is they? It doesn’t matter, Phillips seems to say, or he seems to allow his readers to assume. Let this agony be your agony, let this grief be a classic grief, any grief that we might often lie to ourselves about.

Then the snow changes direction: “Why is lying / to others always so much harder / than to ourselves?” A more direct question, and a seemingly universal “our,” implicating the reader—implicating me, too—in this habit of mistaking one thing for another. The wind shifts once more, and the speaker turns a suddenly giddy (and suspicious) gaze to the natural world as an example:

		      Yesterday, for example,
starlings in flight, the ice of
the frozen pond beneath them briefly
containing their shadows—not
			                         reflecting them
not the way water does, the way
the water did, the way it will
in spring when the pond has unlocked itself
all over again with
no more regard than disregard
for the wings and faces that pass, or don’t, 
across it, so what,
		             so what?

The poem’s thinking mind gets carried away just like anyone might get carried away when watching starlings or remembering the shapes and shadows their flights tend to make across the landscape. I found myself often wandering as if lost through Prospect Park, cursing the shapes of the leafless lindens and envying the geese standing cold but together, in flock, atop the frozen lake. So what? I mumbled to no one, hovering at the lake’s edge. But Phillips’s speaker interrupts themself—Enough, they almost say. The hard snow stops falling. The mind clears, a beloved “you” appears, and the speaker addresses them directly:

                                         When I say
I trust you, I mean I’ve considered
that you could betray me, which means I know
you will, that we’ll have between us at last 
that understanding which is a safer thing 
than trust, not a worse, 
not a better thing . . .

And there was that idea, betrayal. We had promised, hadn’t we? To hold each other, always, in postures of tenderness? And so, yes, I took off my armor. I allowed myself to believe that, surrounded by love at last, I’d never suffer alone again. But here was Phillips’s speaker, far too late, advising me otherwise: Safety isn’t a matter of being free from harm. No, safety comes from understanding that harm always remains possible, even amidst love, even amidst trust, and it is critical, perhaps, to keep ready one’s defenses. “Understanding,” Phillips’s speaker says soberly, looking right at me, “is a safer thing / than trust.” I hadn’t considered it. Exhausted and eager for somewhere, anywhere, to roost, I did not imagine that the ones I had chosen to build a life alongside were capable of cruelty. I had no language for it, and so I was defenseless. But Phillips cleared the weather, and the word I needed was revealed. My gaze came to focus on the single goose in the distance, separate and alone, and at last I could say it out loud—I was betrayed.

Like this, “Blizzard” kept me upright. I read it from beginning to end without skipping a word as if it were a daily devotion, the object of that devotion the sudden revelation of that salient thought, that brutal idea—betrayal—amidst the thinking that came before and after it; the same way that the truth—I was betrayed—was a lit wick interrupting the dark of my grief and panic. A lantern waiting to be noticed, fed, and made of use.

II: The Lightning

Agony is not precise, not always nomadic, and oftentimes it takes up long-term residency in one body. By April I felt like I was being devoured by a mean creature. Chewed on for sport. “I feel like I have an illness, like I’ve been poisoned,” I said to my psychoanalyst who, at my own gradual pace, helped me realize that the psychological effects of betrayal and grief can come to feel like a poisoning agent. The season of reversals was right outside my window, and yet the poison made the greening trees seem less green, the fuchsia blooms and the crab apple’s alabaster display less bewildering to my once easily bewildered sensibilities. There was no space for beauty: The faces of my friends—my “family”—flashed perpetually in the darkness whenever I closed my eyes. I missed them. I resented them. I missed them again.

“In the fresco of you telling me the dream / all over again,” begins the poem “After Learning that the Spell is Irreversible,” from Phillips’s Reconnaissance,[2] and I locked onto that word, fresco, and identified my psyche scattered across a similarly treated canvas. The poem focuses, mainly, on a story—or some might call it an allegory, though for what, I couldn’t quite say—where one dog is killing another by brutal terms:

all over again—one dog killing another,
the larger one taking the smaller one’s
head in its mouth, and biting down, waiting
for that stillness that,
                                 sometimes, I don’t
feel anymore like waiting for—how cold
it is; how windless.

Even if it happened in a dream, a once-thought-living thing is dead and, via the poem, it seems to have happened right in front of us. By detailing the pause, the “waiting / for that stillness,” the poem asks the reader to inhabit it more fully, to inhabit the time it takes for the mind and energy of one animal to diminish and end inside the gnarled mouth of another. In this way, though the descriptions are terse, their effects are severe.

Then, a small shift toward grander philosophical considerations about animals and the ways their silence may be perpetual if never interrupted by a threat. Phillips’s speaker wonders here if the final, inevitable sounds any animal is forced to make amount to “a kind of / song to at least go down singing.”

Then, the conventional order to the poem—the offering of an image, followed by a natural waxing and pondering about said image—is ruptured, devastatingly so, by what seems to be a sudden disclosure of tenderness. A kind of song, it seems, for the speaker to go down singing.

		to believe there was nothing I wouldn’t
		have done for you—harder still, that I ever
		said so.

For the remaining third of the poem, the speaker returns to their previous task—remembering the dream, translating the sensation of that remembering, telling us about the surviving dog and what surviving has come to mean. But what took hold of me that spring, and what takes hold of me even when I read the poem now, is that vulnerability cutting through the poem’s torso. A shimmering thread woven into an otherwise neutral cloth. A moment of stillness in a fresco of motion.

In the fresco of my own agony, I came up for air from time to time. The cycles of intrusive overanalyzing, the unkind ruminations on the past, the endless loops of shame and the physical pains they would beckon from surprising corners of my body would vanish. With a sudden gust, the dense fog would part, and I’d find myself present, clear-headed, and in my body again. I’d be mid-walk to the Q train, or examining a bushel of sage while at a grocery, or I’d be fresh out of a long, hard shower, staring at myself in the mirror, or I’d be sitting in the park watching two dogs run toward each other, unleashed, and I’d think it, or I’d say it out loud: Hard to believe there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for any of you.  I’d see all their faces again, one by one. Harder still that it remains true.

Phillips could have ended the poem with that interruption, could have made it a final volta and it would have been exquisite. Phillips could have left that interruption out entirely: If you remove that sentence, the poem still works, is still beautiful, still devastates. But its effect would be divergent. Inserting clarity like that, right in the middle, effectively mimes how clarity often arrives. Like a bolt of light above a stretch of dark woods, clarifying everything—flowing water, still-open wounds—before the woods go dark again.

III: The Sea

In the early moments of summer, I was back home in the Bahamas conducting research into the long aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Hundreds of residents were still missing. Thousands were still rebuilding their lives. No matter who I spoke to, each person flinched, their shoulders rose, their gaze fell blank whenever I mentioned Dorian’s name. Resilience and optimism were everywhere, but so was grief in equal measure. And the landscape was grieving, too. Fields of mangroves had died, the shorelines had eroded by many feet, wide swaths of large, lush pine trees had turned gray and, from above, stretches of the affected islands had lost all their color.

I had been through many storms and their outcomes over the span of my life, but never had I seen a storm’s devastation so total and wounds so severe. Never had I witnessed our landscape change so quickly. “Oh, we’re done for,” I admitted out loud numerous times to family members while we lamented the superstorms that will worsen over the coming decades. My research had revealed to me that the global and historical powers that have come to precipitate the climate crisis have refused to take responsibility. To them, not only does the violence bearing down on Bahamians, residents of small island states and of the “Global South,” not matter—it’s necessary. My worldview was shattered, my sense of home—both literally and in memory—was dissolving. I was stretching, trying to hold and understand the suffering of my people, my family, and the suffering was made more cruel because the chosen family who I thought had known me best, the ones I had expected to hold me through turmoil, were gone. The year began to feel ruthless.

“From a Land Called Near-Is-Far,” another poem from Reconnaissance, begins with a question that I had felt myself asking at the time:

But what if all suffering is in fact for nothing—
no particular wisdom after, blooming flower-like,
blood in the water? [3]

I felt no purpose to the suffering I had seen, both my own and the suffering my countryfolk were still enduring. And so, beginning at the top of summer, I held close this poem and its revelations.

It seemed structured quite differently from many of the Carl Phillips poems that I had grown to love. Gone are the long, near-recursive bouts of thinking and descriptions that extended lavishly down a page, the lyrical voice that often interrupted itself, the sentences drilling down deeper, running tangentially, pirouetting around particular phrases. Whereas most of Phillips’s poems I had encountered meditated at length on just a few moments, a few ideas, here, Phillips blazed through many—the phrases much snappier than usual and not drawn out; punctuation and end stops occurring more frequently, so much so that Phillips does away with line breaks (to me, the poem seems more like a prose block than lineated verse) and lets the punctuation—em dashes, semicolons, and ellipses—reign supreme over the poem’s rhythm, emphasis, and speed.

And to me, there is a conversational quality to the poem’s gestures, with its seemingly open contemplations and rhetorical questions that invite the reader’s thinking to run alongside the poem’s fast-paced considerations. First, with Phillips’s speaker, we find ourselves contemplating suffering, then humiliation, then mistakes that change everything and how a life might change, or how, “even now,” even as we speak this very moment, I hear the poem say, it “begins to.” The speed of the loosely related ideas portrays a perhaps desperate and searching mind; a mind with too much to process and a speaker who must turn to face the long list of affections demanding the attention of their senses and sensibilities.

Things got worse. Later in summer, an auntie fought a valiant battle with numerous acts against COVID, and despite my family’s journey to the edge of the world to beg God for mercy, God did not relent, and she faded away. Then, in too close a pairing, with so little room to breathe in the in-between, a darling and dearest friend, April Freely, died without warning or omen. Summer was the season of beatings, the season of defeat. It was a season that seemed to crack its knuckles and then kept on swinging. At that point, agony had ruptured my life and mind so incessantly that I felt like I was speeding, and I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. When I think back on that summer now, I hear multiple horns blaring, the sound of one indecipherable from the other.

But even within a litany of interruptions and speed, like in Phillips’s poem, moments of clarity stand out. While back in my Bahamas, I spoke with a woman who had lost everything in the storm. She still owns the plot of land her home was on, a gorgeous perch on a cliff facing east, overlooking the Sea of Abaco and the wider Atlantic. Dorian made the ocean swell so tall it cleared the cliff, toppled her house, and pulled it toward the horizon. While having a conversation with me atop her concrete foundation—the only thing left—she turned toward the cliff, threw her gaze across the now calm, long-edged water, and begged for her suffering to stop.

a cliff, I think; a sea adorns it

Right in the middle of the poem, its many movements and shifts, its propulsion slows down for this remarkable beat. For much of the other locations in the poem, metaphors use wordier vehicles, (“To be stripped of one’s armor / and left naked, dying, on a field of war—that’s what / humiliation meant once,” for example) and descriptions are more involved, with many more pieces that serve as their parts. But here, things are simple. Among the other shifting and winding reasonings that take place, the pattern breaks, and a salient thought emerges—a lucid rendering of mercy.

I remember the granular details of little else that happened in the summer, but I remember with precision the day I learned that April died. It was nighttime, I was on a dark beach in Florida, I had drank myself into a stupor, and in a squall of rage, or disbelief, I flung myself into the water, I ran toward the only color I saw, the blue or the black-blue that agony and the night sky had merged into, and in waist-high waves, into the water’s muscle and salt, I screamed April’s name, I screamed for her life, I cried, I bartered, I begged to be relieved, I begged for mercy while facing east, while facing my Bahamas, while screaming into the ocean, the name of which I can never forget, that Atlantic, that portal across which empires sent their ships and brought enough violence to this side of the planet to sustain every summer since, every summer on the way.

IV: The Raft

If the year so far was a long sequence of ruptures and loss, and if each loss arrived with an accompanying aftermath, then fall was the season where those aftermaths coalesced, thickened, and had sinister conversations with one another. Your people are stuck in the teeth of the future, and there’s nothing you can do about it, one whispered to me. Surely you can’t trust another living thing ever again—they can abandon you at any moment or, without warning, they can die, went another. Brace yourself, count your money, protect your life, more loss is on the way.

I was back in New York. Alone, and in pain, and belatedly back in therapy. There was hope—I was beginning to recognize again the ginkgoes and sweetgums that lined my block, shedding the most gorgeous hues, and the finch song that threaded their branches—but it was fleeting, and quickly I returned to my duty: finding answers to the questions that sucked all the air out of my mind: Where is home now? How do I trust humans again? How do I locate myself inside my own life? And what do I do with my mind? They spun like storm currents; they twisted me in opposite directions. I was lost inside many fused aftermaths, looking for a buoy or a dinghy to navigate my way through.

Phillips’s “The Raft”—from Speak Low—seems concerned, too, with aftermath.[4] Set in the fall—the season of settling into what’s happened, the season of aftermaths—the poem’s speaker seems to be looking back briefly, taking account of a journey as it stands so far. “More fugitive than / lost,” the speaker says, “more spent than stranded.” These negotiations—the considered distance between fugitive and lost, spent and stranded—made me scrutinize my own location. Where I ended up—how much of it was due to my own fugitivity? Am I stranded now, hopeless? Or am I exhausted, wounded, and merely in need of substantial rest and care?

The speakers in Phillips’s poems are often interested in finding the difference between two things, and that interest continues here, in the poem’s crucial third stanza, as the speaker attempts to define truth.

                                                I had thought the truth
would be a falcon—for how it rarely soars, as much as for
that precision with which, on wings instead built for speed
mainly, it descends, then strikes. But it is not a falcon.
The truth is a raft, a rough-at-each-of-its-edges affair of many
sturdinesses lashed together.

Swarmed by sorrow, what kept me returning to this poem during the season of aftermaths was less the interruptive nature of its clarity (as was the case with the other poems I’d spent time with in previous seasons) and more what it seems to imply about the formation, the origins of those clarities, those moments of clear truth. This poem, to me, seems like one of Phillips’s ars poeticas.

The truth isn’t a hawk that comes down, swiftly, to strike us with its clarity—as I might have argued, as I might have posed was Phillips’s position. The truth being a moment of clarity that strikes, maybe repeatedly, through a sometimes-meandering, sometimes-desperate, sometimes-brave, but incessantly thinking mind. No: “The truth is a raft,” he says, “a rough-at-each-of-its-edges affair of many / sturdinesses lashed together.” This feels more apt: the fragments, the pieces around the clarity in Phillips’s poems are small planks, chosen intentionally from the present, or the past, or the wreckage of the mind, that provide the context atop which clarity can float, be ferried, from speaker to reader.

I have considered—and frequently wished for—truth to be a hawk within striking distance, but by hawk, I mean a loved one with wings, and by strike, I mean collect me, save me, deliver me to an elsewhere softer, sweeter, more tender. But no one arrived. Perhaps there is a harsh storm in every lifetime that no one can penetrate through. And so, the truth, the clarity, that which saves us is the raft of whatever is available, whatever we can string together to carry us. That year, drowned and flailing, there were times Phillips’s work was the only thing I could reach for. So I reached for him, read the artifacts fashioned by his mind, and after, I’d feel more steady. Although just briefly. I’d find myself beneath a calm, cloudless sky. Floating, finally, atop some sturdiness.

[1] Carl Phillips, Silverchest (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 26–27.

[2] Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 26–27.

[3] Phillips, Reconnaissance, 28.

[4] Carl Phillips, Speak Low (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2009), 54.

b is a queer Bahamian poet, essayist, educator, and dreamer currently living on the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people. By the way of friends, collaborators, institutions, and luck, their poems and essays have been published and featured in places like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re currently working on a nonfiction book, The Climate Sirens (Graywolf, 2025), about Hurricane Dorian, the effects of climate change on Small Island Developing States, and how centuries of far-flung injustices—like colonization, slavery, and numerous inequalities at local and global scales—have come to precipitate the climate crisis.

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