Issue > Poetry
Phillip Sterling

Phillip Sterling

Phillip Sterling's most recent collection of poetry is And for All This: Poems from Isle Royale (Ridgeway Press 2015). He is also the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told (short fiction, Wayne State University Press), Mutual Shores (poetry, New Issues), and three chapbook-length series. Since his retirement from Ferris State University in 2013, he has assumed an active role in Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, a literary nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

Words Frequently Confused: Breath, Breadth

The lone crow at the height
of my neighbor's black walnut
defends the wind, its destination

an announcement no stationmaster
can articulate, and I am caught
by it, halfway between the back porch

and the car, where my eager son
listens to the latest release
as he awaits my retrieval of whatever

it was we'd forgotten: five steps
from the porch I'd rebuilt a year ago
(when the concrete foundation

crumbled dangerously); five steps
from the second-hand SUV
I'd bought to replace

a sixteen-year-old truck. The crow
distracted me, and I have stopped
halfway. I cannot remember why.  

It's as if the bird had called "Here!"  
(Or my son: "What?") and suddenly
I see myself as the crow sees me,

paused between my house and
where I need to go, and looking up:  
as if I had cocked my ear

to some ornate, vaulted ceiling
from which was being broadcast

all the comings and goings of the world.

Words Frequently Confused: Seasoned, Weathered

No thunder hungers for this moon's room. No lightning paces. No wind takes the breath away, as if in surrender. There is nothing but what is not. Of this, the child is certain: this, and all that can be seen from his perch among the leafless branches; this, at least, and how his father's firewood in the log crib has split into stars, how the clapboard siding on the empty house (which he can see from where he clings, even as the darkness comes on) grays, the way one's parents would age and gray—should they have lived so long.

Mercy (in the Body of a Small Bird)

We cup the drub of goldfinch
awaiting her return
from a flight into misperception:

sky where there is no sky, wind
held in the stillness
of windows. And we mean

to be diligent, to stay outside
with her, in the vast chill,
until she steadies,

winks, and returns to the feeder,
without any human help

beyond our warm-blooded palms.
But it's difficult. We're cold
and unworthy, more often

an observer than participant,
more often afraid
of action's failure than of

some failure to act. And yet
to hold the world's trembling
is to tremble in kind

(in a way) and to know
what it means to take in hand
—or in our weak, helpless

arms, if need be—one's feeble
griefs, one's miraculous

to wrap our feeble arms
around nothing of which is not,
but everything that is:  

the racing heart, the wild pulse,
the shudder of comings
(and goings),

our warm breath in the ear
of someone who needs to be held,
just as, at times, we do.

Song (Winter Afternoon)

What thrub and thrumming do I hear
above me      what pulse and pulsing

what road melt and run off
what rodent tracks melt into snow

where sparrows wash from bush
to porch      like lake water

teasing a great shore      what litany     
what audience           what sleeping dog

what modesty of clouds grays
the sun's nearly perfect sphere      

what is it that I've begun to hear
what low language beyond the sun

what fixed drumming      what words
become     what must I be to fear


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The Light