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The Singing

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I can hear her through
the thin wall, singing,
up before the sun:
two notes, a kind
of hushed half-breathing,
each time the baby
makes that little moan—

can hear her trying
not to sing, then singing
anyway, a thing so old
it might as well
be Hittite or Minoan,

and so soft no one
would ever guess
that I myself once
sang that very song:

back when my son
and then his brother
used to cry all night
or half the morning,
though nothing in all
the world was wrong.

And now how strange:
to be the man from next door,
listening, as the baby cries
then quiets, cries and quiets
each time she sings
their secret song,

that would sound the same ten
thousand years ago,
and has no
meaning but to calm.

Poem copyright ©2015 by Patrick Phillips, “The Singing,” from Elegy for a Broken Machine, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Patrick Phillips and the publisher.
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The Singing

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  • Patrick Philips was born in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a BA from Tufts University, an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD in English Renaissance literature from New York University. He is the author of the poetry collections Chattahoochee (2004), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Boy (2008), and Elegy for a Broken Machine (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award. Through his poems, Philips frequently tells stories of earlier generations of his white, working-class family’s life in Birmingham, Alabama; in his work, he also grapples with race relations, the complex and violent dynamics of family relationships, and parenthood. In an interview for storySouth, Philips noted that he has found working in traditional poetic forms to be “generative” while acknowledging a poem’s need for both narrative and song.
    His honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fulbright Scholarship...

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