Learning from Hope: A Profile of Phil Hey

The quote inside the cover of Phil Hey’s seventh book, How It Seems To Me, was recorded thousands of years ago by Plato, but it makes just as much sense today as you continue to read through the book. It goes, “The gods may know otherwise, but this is how it seems to me.”

This quote does a good job of describing the confidence and clarity in which Hey builds the stories that many of his poems tell. Take, for example, the poem “Daylilies.” It’s written about a woman who’s saved money from selling eggs so that she can plant flowers in front of the house, and her husband who thinks it’s a bit foolish because he only plants crops to harvest. He sees her flowers as pretty, but pointless. But when the farm falls into someone else’s hands, “year in, year out, those lilies come again.” The poem ends off with, “I’d wish that woman’s luck / in choosing what outlasts me, and to learn / to flower in the midst of such neglect.” This is the kind of ending that haunts the reader and leaves him or her thinking about the day liles that remain, blooming each year in the wake of the house being sold, the fields being taken over by strangers, and that woman leaving to finish her life.

Phil Hey’s style isn’t really comparable to any other writer’s. The way he refines and purifies each emotion is truly beautiful. You see this in all his poems, including the poems in which he writes from other people’s points of view in a refreshing and believable way, a feat that is certainly not easy to pull off. The poem “And so I told him” is one such poem. It starts off with, “if you go to Stone City without me / don’t expect me to be waiting for you / when you get back.” It goes on to illustrate an argument between a rural woman and her husband, all from the woman’s view. It’s the extent to which we understand her once we’ve finished reading the poem that makes it so captivating.

Another way that Hey often writes is directly about someone. Take his poem “Penelope.” It’s about the wife of Odysseus, and the daily wear of waiting for him to come home from Troy after twenty years. The poem goes on to talk about the tapestry that she wove each day and unwove by night. “But with what joy she turned / to each morning’s weave, making the art / once again, a hundred, a thousand revisions; not the labor of it done, undone / and the only account of her heart’s joy.” These lines show how even though she’d have to unweave that night what she wove in the day, she was happy in her art because it gave her hope.

And much of Phil Hey’s work does radiate a hope, a solid sense of something better coming. Not only do we see it in this work about Penelope, but also in many other poems of his, including the poem “A Prayer of Old Papers,” which is about the notebooks and pages that remain through the ages. Its last sentence reads, “Soon everything will have its place, / a history more perfect than the present, / meaning arisen from each mortal scrap/as if every act were ritual, as it was, / as it is.” The poem “The rider in autumn” has the same faith that both Penelope and “A Prayer of Old Papers” does. It’s about a girl and her father, who buys her a pony, and she’s proud of both the animal and her father. Then the poem moves to the future in which she’s 44, and her father has died of a heart attack, riding a new horse and remembering showing him how well she could ride as a child. There’s also a poem that shows Hey’s reply to an unknown phone caller with the wrong number asking if there’s a guarantee on tire patches. The caller’s attempt to call the tire store ends up in a magnificent poem called “Certainties.” It begins with, “Well, friend, you’ve got a wrong number / but let me answer you anyway:” and the poem talks about how life is uncertain: there’s no guarantee on weather, animals, love. In fact, “Way I’ve been feeling lately, / don’t know as I’d dare to stand behind / a bet that the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, / or me with it. You never know. / But about my tire patches, yes sir, / I guarantee every last one.”

Although most of his poems are about people and the way they live, Phil Hey also writes about nature. In the poem, “At the river’s edge,” there is a description of the edge of a forest where the river meets the trees. It ends with, “and the water strider, easy in his miracle, / walking anywhere, his feet dimpling the surface/ so easy for the rest of us to break.” This poem is one of my favorites because it can leave the reader feeling almost as delicate as the water, full of the silence that the water strider radiates in his simple task.

The simplicity of Hey’s writing, the way each idea is fresh and absolute, is truly beautiful in so many of his poems. He’s certainly a recognized poet as well. He’s been teaching at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa since 1969, and has garnered several commissions. He’s received the Duff Award for the Pursuit of Excellence, and the Literacy Award for college English teachers. His poems have won their own awards, and they’re published in several magazines and collections. And with good reason: his writing is artistic and as original as it could possibly be. It reflects his sense of humor and his love for the Midwest. And most of all, his poems are inspiring, bright things that teach us to make the world a little better, and as voiced earlier in his own words, “to flower in the midst of such neglect.”

Works by Phil Hey

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.