“If Grief Is Mostly Private and Always Various”
Poet Carl Phillips reads his poem, inspired by Michael Schmidt’s untitled photograph.
Nov 30, 2021
For this year’s edition of our Poetry Project, we asked poet Ada Limón to select nine distinguished American poets to respond to artworks from the Museum’s collection. Here, Carl Phillips shares his poem inspired by Michael Schmidt’s untitled photograph from the series U-NI-TY (EIN-HEIT).
Michael Schmidt. Untitled, from the series U-NI-TY (EIN-HEIT). 1991–94
If Grief Is Mostly Private and Always Various
—After Michael Schmidt’s untitled photograph
As for the sea, where’s that sound now, that the snow made
in black and white, falling into it, the snow like words from
a severed head held aloft, upside down, and shaken –
Nothing can ever/will ever/be the same.
Even if still reckless: wildering;
wild. Though I seem tame.
Why did you choose this work of art?
I chose Michael Schmidt’s photograph because it seemed to speak to the relationship between silence and utterance, a relationship I am interested in in poetry.
What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I tried to capture the photograph’s binary appearance with two stanzas, and I hope to suggest that speech is falling, like it precipitated from the mouth, as it were, of the first stanza. The poem enacts language spilling from a severed head.
Carl Phillips’s newest book, Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007–2020, will appear in 2022. Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.