Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Changed Man --- Robert Phillips


If you were to hear me imitating Pavarotti
in the shower every morning, you'd know
how much you have changed my life.

If you were to see me stride across the park,
waving to strangers, then you would know
I am a changed man—like Scrooge

awakened from his bad dreams feeling feather-
light, angel-happy, laughing the father
of a long line of bright laughs—

"It is still not too late to change my life!"
It is changed. Me, who felt short-changed.
Because of you I no longer hate my body.

Because of you I buy new clothes.
Because of you I'm a warrior of joy.
Because of you and me. Drop by

this Saturday morning and discover me
fiercely pulling weeds gladly, dedicated
as a born-again gardener.

Drop by on Sunday—I'll Turtlewax
your sky-blue sports car, no sweat. I'll greet
enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors

with a papal largesse. It's all because
of you. Because of you and me,
I've become one changed man.

---Robert Phillips

The Changed Man by Robert Phillips

In those carpe-diem moments where the past and future stretch out nicely and the present slows to a standstill, seemingly with the whole wide world waiting on you to make a decision, one key element is so often neglected. Whether we seize the day or let it slip away, far too often we fail to express gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for: the moment, the experiences that lead you there, the skills and talents you possess, the good weather, the bus being on time, the free ticket to the concert or game or museum where you'll bump into a long lost friend or a soon-to-be love of your life. Along the way there are many features that factor into our stations in life, particularly the people who nudge us in the right direction and help us to see elements of ourselves that we couldn't see on our own. Robert Phillips is "The Changed Man" because he decided to make changes to his life, but he would never have made those changes without a catalyst, someone who supplied him with a small amount of courage that would grow fearless inside of him. This poem is about thanking those who help us along the way, not just by saying thank you but also by living our gratitude.

We must start with the poem's tone. Comfortable and conversational, the poem speaks in such a direct and intimate manner that readers cannot do anything but assume the role of Phillips' "you" character. The tone of the poem levels the playing field immediately by breaking down the distance between readers and the poet's influential "you." Of course he is writing this poem to his beloved, but we are given an all-access pass. How else would we know he imitates "Pavarotti / in the shower every morning" or more importantly, why he does this? Because the tone is utterly personal, the emotional reveals in the poem slap readers with tremendous, yet subtle force. There is nothing remarkable about "striding across the park, / waving to strangers," and yet this comparison to Scrooge is heartwarming on the surface, but unwittingly complex. "Feather- / light, angel-happy, laughing the father / of a long line of bright laughs" and somewhere in this description it ceases to describe Scrooge and the image of our poet-speaker rounds out in the minds of readers. I would argue the images pack such a punch because of how they interact with the poem's tone. A veritable tidal balance is at work here with the personal tone pulling us in, while the quotidian images and actions push us back to the universal, only to tug us back again with underlying emotional significance. Still, this current is anything but choppy, in fact it feels perfectly natural.

Just when we're thinking the homage to A Christmas Carol is running a bit thick, Phillips abruptly shifts gears with a mind-numbing, soul-rocking compliment. "Because of you I no longer hate my body." For the depressed and the weak, for the fearful and the ashamed, for the sick and the guilty, sometimes the incarnation of all they hate about being alive is the vessel they are traveling the world in. It is too painful to ask you to put yourself in these places of these fellow human beings, although some of you may know their plights very well---hell, some of you might have been in these stages in the past or are in them now. Take a deep breath and imagine what it is like to love yourself…completely…without judgement. It is a beautiful thing, possibly the most beautiful thing. This is the blessing his beloved has given Phillips; no wonder he would proclaim the role this loved one has played in his immense transformation. "Because of you I buy new clothes. / Because of you I'm a warrior of joy. / Because of you and me." There's an earnest vigilance to the poet's joy, a commitment that isn't ostentatious but runs distinctly through his bones and his whole being as something immeasurable and outside the bounds of science, yet just as sustaining as breath and water.

Yes, there are religious and spiritual undertones in this poem. Bells should toll within the cathedral of your soul when you read the lines "dedicated / as a born-again gardener" and "I'll greet / enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors / with a papal largesse." But these religious issues could fill a whole essay on their own. Instead, I'm turning my focus to how the end functions as a final movement sailing swiftly upon the poem's tidal balance. The poet asks the person responsible for his changes to "Drop by / this Saturday morning and discover me." He goes on to also recommend a chance visit on Sunday, almost as if he anticipates it might be challenge getting his beloved catalyst for change to visit him. This part of the poem is mysterious and I'm quite curious about the distance it assumes between the poet and his beloved. In fact, it makes me wonder if I've assumed things all wrong. Is this person responsible for his change an actual representative of romantic love? Could it be a mentor? A father figure? A young soul rejuvenating his old tired one? As the questions shuffle us further from certainty on the relationship between the poet and his "you" character, we have that saving current, once again, pulling us back to the poem's clear depth. The gardening and the car waxing are by-products of a life and attitude change that the poet is unabashedly living out with each passing day. Recognizing how he arrived at such a path, he must share with the person most responsible, but he also shares with all of us, that "It's all because / of you. Because of you and me, / I've become one changed man."


Anonymous said...

Very serious for April fools! Good poem choice.

Alice said...

I'm so glad you're doing this again! You're off to a great start.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you both for your comments. I'm glad your enjoying the blog so far and I'm excited about all the other poems I'll be sharing this month. There's some great ones!

Amanda said...

Matt, I think I have already landed on my new favorite poem. Last year you introduced me to a wonderful poem that I have hanging in my office. Starting your blog with a poem of thanksgiving was/is a wonderful choice. Thanks for yet again opening my eyes to the lovely world of poetry.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Your welcome Amanda! Opening your eyes to great poetry is one of my many jobs as your big brother :).