Lyric Poetry Award - 2011
It came with those scratches
from all their belt-buckles.
Palm-dark with their sweat,
like the stock of a gun:
an arc of pickmarks cut
clear through the lacquer,
where all the players before me
thumbed these same latches
where it sleeps in green velvet.
Once sang, as I sing, the old songs.
There's no end. There's no end
to this world, everlasting.
We crumble to dust in its arms.
Deborah Garrison on Patrick Phillips
"The Guitar" moves us initially with its simplicity—a description of the speaker's guitar, its physical markings, its velvet-lined case. We see each detail of this gently worn but still vivid, still playable instrument; and the long history such details convey ("palm-dark with their sweat,/ like the stock of a gun") calls to mind a much larger canvas of human endeavor. Suddenly the image of the guitar includes war and suffering, the "old songs" that others have played on it, the knowledge that they will be played again by each generation. In a sonnet's short length, Phillips has moved us from the apparently simple particulars—the scratches left by prior owners' belt-buckles—to a place of heartbreaking universality, a grief encompasing their disappearance from our midst and the foreknowledge of his own disappearance to come. At the same time, there is a tiny joy at the end of this poem, for the guitar (like the lyric poem itself) is a physical object that outlives us. It will go on, "everlasting," despite our short time here. Both grief and the impulse toward song; both awareness of loss and exquisite presence in this moment: these make for a great lyric.