Carl Phillips: “The Point of the Lambs”

Carl Phillips is a professor of English and African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His poetry has received numerous honors including the Kingsley Tufts Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. The poem below is reprinted by permission from his collection Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006.

The Point of the Lambs

The good lambs
in the yellow barn–the rest
housed in blue.

“the rest,” meaning those who
–the guide explained–inevitably
arrive suffering. For

some do,
he added.
Serious. This–like

a new lesson. As to
some among us, it was,
it seemed. The usual

stammer of heart the naive
tend to, in the face of what finally
is only the world. What

must it be, to pass
thus–clean, stripped–
through a life? What

reluctance the mind
shows on recognizing
that what it approaches

is, at last, the answer
to the very question it knows
now, but

too late,
oh better to never to have never
put forward. What I

mean is we moved

to the blue barn’s

weakness. We
looked in.
Three days, four days

old. Few expected to
finish the evening it was beginning to
be already. And the small

crowd of us
shifting forward, and–
in our shifting uniformly–it

being possible to see how between
us and any
field rendered by a sudden wind

single gesture–kowtow,
upheaval–there was
little difference. Some

took photographs; most
did a stranger thing: touched
briefly, without

distinction, whichever
person stood immediately in
front of, next to. Less

for support than
as remedy or proof or
maybe–given the lambs who,

besides dying, were as well
filthy (disease,
waste and, negotiating

the dwindling contract
between the two.
the flies everywhere)–

maybe the touching
concerned curbing the hand’s instinct
to follow the eye, to

confirm vision. Who can
say? I was there–yes–but
I myself touched no one.

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