For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of poetic lines. This week, Carl Phillips—poet, Aiken Taylor award winner, and judge of our upcoming poetry contest—examines a stanza from "San Sepolcro" by Jorie Graham.
I’ve always favored open stanzas that allow their open-endedness to resonate with a meaning that remains unstated, but understood. Yes, the resonances may be misleading, out of context; how, then, to make them meaningfully misleading? Here’s the fourth stanza of Graham’s eight-stanza poem:
holy grave. It is this girl
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into
The girl exists in a painting by della Francesca; she’s depicted undressing. But where are we? Who is she? The opening line of the stanza suggests an equivalency: holy grave = this girl. How is a girl a grave, and in what way holy? Is the body itself what’s meant—a kind of grave, in that it holds us as we die steadily inside it? Meanwhile, she undresses, “to go into”—into what? And what does it mean, to remove the weather from oneself? What lies beneath?
Here, a single stanza creates and sustains mystery, part of the poem’s weather. The stanza before this one tells us it’s the mind that’s a holy grave. The stanza after will tell us the girl is going into labor. Later we’ll learn that this is a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary. Within the stanza itself, though, we reside in mystery, in possibility—without which, what is art?