Obsession is the engine of my work, and when occupied by an obsession, I need to live in it fully, absorb into it completely—it’s the only way my work gets done, and, conversely, it is very difficult for me to be a person in the world—answering text messages, going to the post office—if I have not resolved whatever obsession is visiting me.
Even more than I am an obsessive, I am a creature slowly and painfully unlearning shame. I’ve been, so often, ashamed of my obsessiveness, of the way it shapes and colors my life. Ashamed of the feeling that I cannot make work unless I am actively obsessed with something.
In 2014, as an MFA student, for an entire year I did not write a single poem that was not, in some way, about the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez. And when my shame would inevitably set in —about seeming repetitive or redundant in workshop, about being thought of as strange or boring—I would try to write about something else, and the poem would feel all wrong, stilted, faraway, as if my writing itself resented me for calling it away from the obsession at hand. Meanwhile, when I committed to the obsession, the more I learned about Halim, the more I found points of entry for myself and for the stories about myself and my family and my communities that I wanted to tell.
In Carl Phillips’ “Blue,” I’ve found kinship and permission, a poem that obsesses and therefore calls to me in my first language. The poem traces the presence of the color blue across the speaker’s two parents, their two races, and in the speaker himself. This fixation on the color blue serves as a greater meditation on color, as a greater meditation on race. The poem opens with the image of a blue vein, first in the meat of a split fish, then in the splayed white thighs of the speaker’s mother:
“As through marble or the lining of certain fish split open and scooped clean, this is the blue vein that rides, where the flesh is even whiter than the rest of her, the splayed thighs mother forgets”
The blue continues into the second stanza, considering the speaker’s black father, and rather than setting him up as a contrast to the whiteness of the mother, or as her counterpoint, the blue continues to act as a vein connecting the two bodies:
“This is the black, shot with blue, of my dark daddy’s knuckles”
The third and final stanza settles on the speaker, considering his own place “somewhere / between,” where whiteness is abstracted to blue, and blackness is abstracted to “finally; nothing.” The speaker occupies the space between the two, pulling from each one its particular blueness and using that to knit an identity simultaneously in the lineage of his parents—by tracing the continuation of blue—and independent of his parents by pulling “[his] own stoop- / shouldered blues across paper.”
The blue that recurs in this poem is perhaps a different shade each time it appears, but the repetition of the word is incantatory, is trancelike. And repetition is my favorite act of worship. As a child learning the Qur’an, I found the ancient, formal Arabic difficult to understand. I drifted through the verses until encountering a word I did know and would treasure it, would trace its recurrence throughout the suras as a way to moor myself. In Phillips’ “Blue,” blue is that magic word, that incantation gathering the images around it into a meditation so devoted as to feel like trance. I am awed by the focus, and called home by the familiarity of the practice of seeing the object of the obsession in every experience, every body.