Light Through Windows: A Look Back at Phillip Sterling’s Mutual Shores

    In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser defines a poem as the recording of a moment, a lasting instant in which the poet, standing before the window of the world, sees both the scene outside the window and his/her own reflection in it. Sometimes, a poet may choose to focus more on internal experience than external experience, or vice versa, but most good poetry displays an artful and subtle balance between the two. Mutual Shores (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2000), the debut collection by Michigan poet Phillip Sterling, is a collection that deftly preserves this balance between observation and reflection. At its heart, the book is an exploration of the powerful way in which different places – be they large or small, near or far - can inform human experience. No matter where the poems take us, be it the Lake Michigan shoreline, the Florida coast, the Notre Dam Cathedral in Paris, or a simple gas station in Anytown, USA, a window exists through which Sterling invites us to peer with him at the scenes which unfold.
    Sterling has an incredible knack for capturing moments, and for showing how certain moments possess the power to bring about great changes in emotion, perspective, and self. Many poems in Mutual Shores describe such moments that are capable of shocking us out of the regularity of our everyday lives. In “Mechanical Failure,” Sterling profiles a gas station clerk who exemplifies such regularity, describing with acute attention to detail all the minutia of the clerk’s daily routine, which consists of:
gas sales,
mostly, some donuts, coffee –
making up for the time I’d used
to refresh pots or fool
with cup dispensers, which
jam up fairly regular
    The way Sterling laundry-lists the clerk’s duties in short lines like this helps the reader feel the same weight of complacence that the clerk seems to be feeling. As a result, we are just as startled as the clerk when the powerful moment of the poem, in which “a brilliant blue Freightliner/ run(s) the intersection like/there’s no tomorrow, jump(s) the curb/and bear(s) down for the pumps,” occurs. In the remainder of the poem, the clerk is jostled by the power of the moment into an existential evaluation of his life.
    “Astronomy” is another poem that encapsulates the power of the moment. In it, the speaker begins by telling the reader of an unsuccessful trip to K-Mart to “return/a brand-new orange/plastic colander with/few unplugged holes.” The poem is full of satirical wit as it seems to poke fun at the way in which the speaker seems to get so emotionally involved in the success of the shopping trip and so upset by little things such as the warm air and hungry mosquitoes outside the store. Again, as in “Mechanical Failure,” Sterling gets us inside the heads of the poem’s characters so that when the moment occurs, we are impacted by it just as swiftly as they are:
Overloaded city-wide,
the power failed. Dozens
of consumers were
suddenly in the dark
and disoriented.
Then the sky
closed down on us
like a bank’s computer,
and as never before,
stars could be seen
by starless city dwellers.
    As the poem moves along, the characters, who were at the onset preoccupied with the more commercial aspects of life, and who were complaining of inconvenience in an age of convenience, are awed into silent admiration by the natural display of stars from which the flashy brightness of modern society has blinded them.

  In this poem, the moment brings about a realization that resurfaces several times throughout Mutual Shores, which is the humbling effect of nature on humanity. Sterling often ushers the reader into aspects of the natural world that remind us of all that exists which is larger and more permanent than ourselves. “A Certain Slant” is another poem in the collection that addresses this theme. In it, the speaker describes a group of tourists admiring the beautifully constructed stained-glass windows of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and wonders why people praise the windows so much when it really is the light shining through them that makes them appear so beautiful. Surrounded by admirers of the achievement of human architecture, the speaker wonders:
can we not see
open countryside, and wide, bright fields
of tulips, reds so brilliant our eyes ache
to take them in, an intense brevity of tulips?
   In “First Monday in September,” he depicts a speaker who is cleaning up the remains from the previous night’s fireworks display, and as the poem plods on, showing the man dutifully collecting the different containers and observing their effect on the lawn and the lake, we get the sense that the man is somewhat ashamed of all the waste his fireworks display has left on the natural landscape. He thinks to himself that the storm which blew in right after they finished off the fireworks “blew up a flashy rodeo/more readily than our meager display/ of rockets and roman candles we’d/bought out-of-state, illegally.” Again, as in “Astronomy,” the human element (modernization/fireworks) is humbled by the natural element (the stars/the storm).
   The technique at work in this poem is one that Sterling masterfully utilizes throughout the collection. By setting the scene so effectively, describing the people, places, and moments with such direct and visceral language that we are momentarily tricked into thinking that they are what the poem is about. However, by adding just the right amount of subtle introspection Sterling is able to bring these seemingly external, observatory poems full circle, encompassing within them the rich internal reflection that such people, places, and moments inspire. In a way, he exercises a sort of poetic slight-of-hand, not in an attempt to confuse or distract the reader form the feeling or idea he is trying to convey, but so that he can let those feelings and ideas unfold themselves from within the layers of the poem, to reveal themselves to the reader rather than using the language to cram the ideas down the readers’ throat.
   This technique would not be so effective if it were not for Sterling’s patient dedication to phrasing and pacing throughout the poems in Mutual Shores. Reading these poems, it is evident that meticulous consideration went into the placement of each key word and each line break. “Roundelay,” for example, is a poem which is made up of one continuous sentence stretched out over six stanzas. The poem moves as a circle would, with words and images being repeated in a near-patterned fashion until it ends with a repetition of the first line. The poem moves so gracefully through it’s descriptions of
what could have been a small
pastel house near the airport
where egrets, those yellow-footed
spirits, littered the safety zone
like a newspaper blown from a porch

that it is not until it is fully completed that we realize that each description seems to run seamlessly into the next and that the poems seems to be not about the things he describes at all but instead about recognizing the happiness that lies in knowing the circular nature of existence.
    As a Michigan native, Phillip Sterling draws great influence from the variety of natural and man-made locales that his home state has to offer. He also takes inspiration from his travels to Belgium and Poland as a Fulbright Scholar, as well other experiences abroad. In addition to being a published poet, he is also a member of the faculty at Ferris State University, where he has taught since 1987. Sterling’s has published three other collections: Abeyance, winner of the Frank Cat Press Chapbook Award in 2007, Quatrains (Pudding House 2006), and Significant Others (Main Street Rag 2005). He is the editor of Imported Breads: Literature of Cultural Exchange (Mammoth 2003) and is founding coordinator of Ferris State University’s Literature In Person (LIP) Reading Series.
    All decorations and publications aside, Sterling possesses a wonderful poetic voice that deserves to be shared. Mutual Shores is proof that he understands the dedication to observation and feeling that the craft of poetry demands. This is a collection that anyone interested in poetry should read, because it imparts upon the reader a lesson of immense significance, which is that while every place we find ourselves during the course of our lives may be different, they all have the capacity to alter our experience of life, and to enhance our understanding of what it means to be human.

Works by Phillip Sterling

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