Carl Phillips, the former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, has often described poetry as a way to wrestle with ambiguity—to attempt to contain it. “Poetry is a form of control,” he once said. So Phillips chooses subjects—love, power, freedom, grief—that are particularly hard to grasp.
In “As From a Quiver of Arrows,” Phillips wrestles with death in a series of questions that progresses from the specific to the existential: What do we do with the body, he begins asking. How are we to / regard his effects … do we say they are / relics and so treat them like relics? / Does his soiled linen count? By the end, Phillips has weaved his way to a broader wrangling with mortality and human frailty, and a sense of wonder for what death will bring. Ultimately, he asks how we should live while we wait for it.
Phillips has written “It’s a human need, to make of shapelessness a form.” He hasn’t reached answers in this poem, but he’s given shape to some of the most essential questions.