• Stanzas: Jorie Graham

    Carl Phillips


    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 PhillipspoetAiken Taylor award winner, and judge of our upcoming poetry contestexamines a stanza from "San Sepolcroby 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
                by Piero
    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 meanta 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 possibilitywithout which, what is art?  

    Carl Phillips’s new book of poems is Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020 (FSG 2022). His prose book My Trade is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing is available from Yale University Press.

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