Robert Philbin

Robert Philbin, writer and political activist from Long Island, New York, was educated at St. Agnes Cathedral High School, studied literature and philosophy at Dickinson College and Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University. He was a platoon leader and U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in Viet Nam. Philbin lectures occasionally on the Humanities, and his published essays, reviews, political commentary and poetry are widely available on line. Among his plays, Finca Vigia was recently produced at The Little Theater; Buffalo Dancing was produced at Open Stage; and his play, Finding Utah was produced at The Park Slope Theater, Brooklyn, and The Black Box in Los Angeles. He is currently managing a U.S. Congressional campaign in Pennsylvania.

Six poems from Spoken Diaries 2


The tigris euphrates, where it all began,
is where it will now end.
War has murdered these waters. The salt sea

tides its invasion of garbage, body parts,
war pollutants, flotilla of carrion and water
buffalo, all the way inland, to emaciated fields,

groves once abundant with lemon trees, fig
and pecan while the catastrophe goes on.
Fouling your daily prayers, even.

Where your god remains silent
and fighter jets terrorize the crematory air
above the oil refinery along the river.


When you run out of words thoughts will suffice.
Another reason to stay protected here, near the cooling
fan in all this heat. Safe from traffic and street noise.

Thinking about a blonde, sinewed youth and ethereal
beauty, the one who made me invisible. It's not as
important as it once was, and that's a kind of progress
I suppose, even when the fissures of beauty become obvious

with age. That visit to the lake, and the dead calm of the deep
south, reflected in still, brown waters, was not enough to stir
memories from nested roots in the passing discharges

of the brain. The fan stirs chilled air in streams as it moves
back and forth, across my face and leg and knuckles. The breeze
arriving with the whirring of steady fan blades. And the mind
fills up with detrital thoughts, like an ashbery poem, gone awry.

Love Story

The doors are still scorched
under layers of paint from the bonus riots.
Lincoln's navy gone from the harbor.
The cobble stones connect to a courtyard

below my rooms off Elizabeth Street
where we often go to morn the dead.
The restaurant offers a nice wine
with a plate of cheese and bread.

Outside a man in a green shiny suit leans
against his Mercedes parked up on the curb.
He touches his tie and then you tell me
we cannot go on like this. I'm remembering

the beach rippling in my car lights, unzipping
the black ocean, like your favorite evening dress.
And you wrapped in my yard blanket in the sand,
like something drowned, and washed up again

in the night tide off Point Lookout.


Who cares about this wreckage in Barrytown?
Overlooking the Hudson where a twilight evening
fire flares above the palisades which lay flat
as an upturned palm in this light. Your palm in fact,
waving in the window that summer before you took up

shamanism and kept a kosher kitchen with your collection
of dangling stringed-puppets hung from the rafters.
Like Auschwitz survivors. The rattling fan blowing cold
air down my back as you cut yourself deep just to talk
about the knife blade against your finger bone.

Blood on the china. Blood on your teeth.
Early summer the storms blow in gray, off the Atlantic,
ashen as dusk as we discuss hermeneutics, the old order,
Christ hung from the wood three hours in the hot sun,
the olives turning black in gnarled thickets down

by another river. This one sparkling in your mind.
Memory is a field of words, languages unspoken
rattling around in old worn loafers. Synapses of tribal
memory snapped in time, like a fading family portrait
on the dusted shelf, the bust of an abolitionist,

the marble plaque recalling a long dead architect, his
ancestor shared a room with Teddy Roosevelt at Harvard,
died of pneumonia in his early sixties. And the sons
out in Woodmere, wife and daughter touring Paris.
He notices time and ignores the waste of energy gone

with melancholia. These words scattered about, fields
of sunflowers trodden with rain, as if meaning were
something anyone could agree upon. Like the chipped
radiator in this old house, still useless
in winter. Clanking. Who cares about such things?

[Note: the exegete does not inquire which books constitute Sacred Scripture,
nor does he investigate their genuine text, nor, again, does he study
their double authorship. He accepts the books which, according to the concurrent
testimony of history and ecclesiastical authority, belong to the Canon of Sacred Scripture.]


who wants to take it on the run,
the way a mafioso bites the mud
in some oil polluted jersey swamp?

who believes in magic, like a pigeon
strapped to a nuclear warhead
gliding patiently toward nirvana,

the no longer functioning rock band?
it comes down to the basics
every now and then, and you

have to be patiently practical,
like a centrist president considering
war, waiting a text message on a blackberry.

there's an undersea worm
said to be glueing particles of sand
into coral reefs for several hundred

million years now, and still it doesn't
matter. we're going to war anyway
and the sun, slowly setting behind

the rooftops, will never know my name.
it will never know your name, either.
the sun doesn't pay any attention to names.

< LL < Gk hypůstasis that which settles
at the bottom;substance, nature, essence,
equiv. to hypo- hypo- + stŠsis standing, stasis

Accidental Explication

Anne Hobbs: Robert, what does this poem mean?

Bob Philbin: "Well first let me say, Anne, that everything I'm going to say right now is in response to your question, and nothing I remotely thought of before writing the poem. So my response isn't about intent. It's about what do I think now, long after the poem was written. "

Anne: Okay.

Bob: "The opening lines relate to the ancient "bogmen" remains found in various swampy grave sits in Europe. Contemporary American "bogmen," to be discovered sometime in the future, are likely to be mafia hits, right? Bog men were usually murdered in some sacrificial context. Sacrificed to a tree, or for rain, or to insure some better outcome for the tribe. In a sense, the contemporary artist, operating outside the capitalist collectable-market system, is sacrificing his or her "self" in a way, to their work, based on some theoretical better outcome for themselves, or as a "gift" to their culture or subculture. So this practice of "self sacrifice" is an illusion too, if viewed in these terms.

"So this poem is about poetry, art, and artists who don't get recognition because they don't believe in the authenticity of culture anymore. We text message and find the sophisticated political center and then go to war anyway and sacrifice goat herders in the name of U.S. economic security. Nothing has changed really since the first origins of civilization. Meanwhile there's a much greater process occurring in a much larger context and when the artist connects to that greater context he or she is functioning in the more authentic life for the artist, the deeper connections which are lost today.

It has nothing to do with ego."

Anne: The point?

Bob: "Now all of this -- the discussion -- just came to me, because your question made me "rationalize" the poem, something I don't think has any value beyond this interesting conversation we're having. I intended none of this in the poem as I wrote it. I intended nothing actually, except to formalize or objectify a particular line of thought -- give it language, let's say --and then later, like now, discovered or explored some "meaning". This is what I mean by "emergent process" in a poem; which is to say, the reader and the poet discover "meaning" somehow in a process together, even if the "meaning" isn't shared, or agreed upon precisely.

"The process of discovery is shared, however, in the language of the poem and that's the point. Art becomes empathetic in this way, I think; it becomes naturally and essentially "humane" because it connects human beings through synaptical movements in the brain which are essentially sympathetic and engaging. So, this -- art, poetry -- is an extended evolutionary process, rooted in the human brain, now fundamentally connected through art, like that which settles at the bottom of experience. We're communicating at a deeper level than we are even aware of, in a way. I like the use of original Greek terms -- like Hypostatis, sediment, essence in water, -- for my ideas lately because there was a certain excitement about language then, the idea being accurately shaped in the word and sound and metaphor, quite the contrary in contemporary society, where, you know, words, like "change" and so forth, mean virtually nothing."


here we are again shot
through with inexplicable remorse,
a casting session in brooklyn,
the actress auditioning
has memorized the entire play.

the director and her lover
are so impressed, the producer says
she is open to sex if i bring
a nice wine later; and later, in
the darkness, the women in the audience

weep for something i didn't intend:
"it has it's own affect quite apart
from what you think you wrote robert,"
she says. "you know woody allen
is famous for his really cold days

in january when the snow forces
all the women to wear scarves
and hats, a glimpse of eye here, a brow
there;" that's a fine phrase to panic
to, thinking i have no control over it

now the actors own it. i own the sidewalk
maybe, ambling past a moroccan cafe near
the park, looking for a bottle of red,
i suppose my personality is quite
i don't know, i observe people and

then evaporate into the wallpaper
even after discovering a red substance
in the shower this morning, but
that's another poem, the one
where marina collects cell phones

in a basket, then films me with black
tape over my eyes and mouth,
waste-deep in freezing creek water,
until i finally come to understand torture.

Erythropoiesis the process by which red blood cells (erythrocytes) are produced. In adults, this usually occurs within the bone marrow.

Copyright © 2010 Robert Philbin