Luc Phinney

Four Poems from Compass

First Books IV
Volume 16:2, Spring 2015

After College

Riding my bike to work in the dark before cars
flood the streets with their headlights,
I think a lot on molecules, cells
and vibration, wat it is to be warm,
and what nature is, of Being, in a freezing
universe, it’s four o’clock and I’m the first one in.
I wet the tables, haul sacks of flour
through the open loading dock,
and clouds of steam light up
in miniscule dawn over the grey landscape
of the concrete floor, where I stand
in floured cotton, immense and groggy.

I watch the sky expand over the trees.
The oven smokes. I’ve burned
my priming batch, but I save
one loaf. Inside its dark-charred crust
the bread is moist. I eat a furtive breakfast,
leaning my head against the door’s black glass.

imageAt the Forge After an Argument

At last the coal inside my head has all
burned down to coke, and I am cancellous,
soot-black, I am intemperate. The skin
of my head pulses as I hammer out
an umber bar, the clangor injuring
the ear and freeing it from indenture.
I have only the one iron in this fire,
and heat pours into it until it glows
past white, spits sparks, and sublimates, lit motes
rising and starring the barn’s dark-mattered air.
I carry on until what’s left is slewed
past useful form, a curl of steel seeming
to grasp for what I cannot ever have
again: the blacksmith’s blank, wife-bodied soft.

On the Way to Catoctin

Morning comes up thick
in the grass and thatch
and sumac of the woods’ verge,

carried up the way a bird
rides a thermal up,
over endless hills, phone lines,

and roads, over the heat map
of lives reclaimed from sleep,
rising into color, blanketing

the blue land in a mosaic
of reds, dense in grids
and looser elsewhere,

internal monologues spooling up
from dreams’ halting
states, old arguments rehashed

in the space under
the shower’s heat, separate
and brief and self-contained.

Unwaiting, the light continues
its plain growth, articulating
houses eaves and the certain

green of bracken uncoiling
into spring, over trees
ghosted with color, over the hills

various opacities, the verdigris
of lichens breaking down the mountains’
folds, and back into the clearing, into the drum

of my heat beating, pulse thin
and lifting, getting up from the discomforts
of my bed, and getting going.

I don’t know hw many lives I passed
on the way to Catoctin,
there was rain and more

rain, I saw ground soft and green
with winter wheat, or broken
to rough crumble, a blurred

paintwork, canvas-coarse.
On the way to Catoctin, I looked
down new-laid asphalt-black

to future slums, fine vinyl townhomes
built four stories up, piebald
in partial brick, red hillsides

held in check with stacks
of concrete blocks, suppurating mud,
so much of all of this for sale,

so much foreclosed, so much arrayed
in palletized rows, ready
for the forklift-up, the truck-hoist-up

the rise of smoke from chimneys, steam
from valleys, the heron from the overgrown
retention pond past which the red roads

merge and flow, a sough of cars
from somewhere close to somewhere
else, each river-noise

muted and eased
into the rest. I knew
the world could not possibly be so large

as to offer such repetition,
and to require so much distance
for return; and yet it was,

and did, and I pulled
off for gas and closed my eyes,
my head usual and heavy.

Up ahead the fallow fields
and the harrowed fields lapped
against the rise of the earth’s folds,

and there, without the highway’s speed
and blur, the roads of my childhood
seemed about to appear, connecting

to the fragment I was on, standing by the car,
holding the pump full open and staring up
into the sky’s straying

Silver, steam rising from the coffee
in my other hand, motions unrandom
but unknowable, limned with the earth’s ring.

The Pleasures of the Alphabet

1. Summer
It is mid-August, and the dust and fire-smoke
give way to rain, not for an afternoon,
bt for two long otherworldly weeks:
verdant, English, biblical.

Out through the wide double doors
the rain lays the ash leaves flat,
the road is black, and clouds rise
from the ragged folds of mountainsides.

Even in the mountains the world sums
to flat: fields and fences
average out; the scrawl of rocks;
the phone lines gentle catenaries.

In all of this a woman laughs on her phone,
standing under a juniper, in the lines of rain.

2. Fall
Letters grow like fruit,
pendant and discrete; words
form without syntax, just color
or scent without context.

When vowels fall, they drop quick
striking the ground and rolling
among the incomprehensible blades of grass.
Still, sense remains, up in the branches.

When consonants split the whole tree shakes,
and creaks, and shoots curl clicks, the old wood
checks and the new wood breaks.
And then wind uncreates.

In the stream beside the tree
the letters rattle and collect.
Languages come to be and pass,
and there is something else, to small to see:

The dappled shadows move, coalesce
and disperse, a broken place, delayed
sky, makeshift gestalt, well-hid
half scented idea-of, dark shuttling

manifold signs—though thrown
by letters they almost seem alive,
and so believe themselves the cause
of whole unfallen sentences.

3. Winter
The streetlight holds a world of snow,
whole genus of pictographic script,
and though each flake participates in soundlessness
somehow the gist comes clear.

4. Spring
Vines on the porch swell at the bud-scar.
A ladybug crawling on the glass.
The pertinence of pleasing things
does not last.

In the dry garden
new snow creates a page
under old writing.

Truman State University Press was established in 1986 to publish peer-reviewed research and literature for the scholarly community and the reading public. The Press publishes 14 to 18 books each year and has over 200 titles in print. The T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry is an annual award for the best unpublished book-length collection of poetry in English, in honor of native Missourian T. S. Eliot’s considerable intellectual and artistic legacy. The purpose of the T. S. Eliot Prize is to publish and promote contemporary English-language poetry, regardless of a poet’s nationality, reputation, stage in career, or publication history.


Luc Phinney is the author of Compass (Truman State University Press, 2013), winner of the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize. Phinney teaches at Johns Hopkins University, and lives in Takoma Park, MD and Missoula, MT.