The poem is filled to the brim with interesting and sometimes shocking questions about death. Readers will be asked to consider what is truly meaningful after someone has passed away and what parts of their life can easily be discarded. By the end of ‘As from a Quiver of Arrows,’ readers may have some answers, but it’s impossible to find fulfilling answers to all of Phillips’ speaker’s inquires.
Explore As from a Quiver of Arrows
‘As from a Quiver of Arrows’ by Carl Phillips is a powerful poem about loss and death. The speaker considers both clearly and openly.
The poem is a series of questions about what one should do with a body after death. These evolve into considerations of that person’s possessions, their memory, and useless and totemic things from their life. What should be kept and what should be thrown out? Is it right to keep one thing and discard another? The speaker also considers memory and how long one can and should think about another person after they’ve died. He alludes to the nature of human beings and their desire to forget pain and loss. This is something that everyone wants, to an extent, and he wonders whether it’s wrong to do so.
You can read the full poem here.
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
and trust it to a raft and to water?
In the first stanza of ‘As from a Quiver of Arrows,’ the speaker begins by asking a striking question. He wants to know what we “do with the body.” He doesn’t say “a” body but “the” body. He’s thinking about a specific deceased person and contemplating whether they should “burn it” or bury it or set it in a raft on water. These are some of the ways that human beings have throughout history taken care of their dead. But, they’re presented so directly that a reader may find themselves taken aback by the speaker’s tone. He’s not beating around the bush or using any sort of euphemism. He’s addressing death head-on.
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
Floss, rubber gloves, and a chewed cap
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to ask more practical questions about what’s going to happen to the body and the deceased person’s life after death. Shouldn’t they write down information about them? If they don’t, won’t the memory of his life “be / salt or late light.” He compares the memory to forgotten objects, leading the reader into a contemplation of what to do with the person’s belongings. The juxtaposition between memory and belongings is an interesting one. They are treated equally as though they are just as important to that person’s life. The second stanza is also a good example of how the writer uses imagery within the text.
Stanzas Three and Four
to a pen elsewhere —how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
In the next stanzas, the speaker contemplates the man’s belongings and which ones should be kept, and how they should be treated. Would it be wrong to wash his “soiled linen?” There are no instructions on how to act or how to treat someone’s belongings. The speaker suggests one extreme and then the other.
Stanzas Five and Six
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
or intended a safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
There is a “bent photo” in the fifth stanza that leads to more questions. Were they supposed to find it? Is it important or from the past? These are all questions that he doesn’t have the answer to and that no one can tell him what to do with. In the sixth stanza, the speaker moves on to broader questions touching on the nature of humanity and remembrance.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
from oblation and memory, if we forget,
and can’t sometimes help it and sometimes
What if it is rest and nothing else that
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
In the final two stanzas, the speaker considers whether or not it’s okay to be human and sometimes forget things that should be important. How long does it take to forget, he adds, in dawns and dusks? These questions all lead up to a consideration of what one does with loss and with the emotions that come with it. The speaker concludes with the moving question, what “will I do now, with my hands?” This is the first time they really bring themselves and their own body into the poem, finally alluding to the fact that the death did mean something and that peace and rest may be all that one is really looking for.
Structure and Form
‘As from a Quiver of Arrows’ by Carl Phillips is an eight-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, known as quintains. These quintains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. The vast majority of the lines are written in pentameter, though. This means that they contain ten syllables. There are various examples throughout the poem where the poet uses fewer or even more syllables per line. This helps give the poem the feeling of structure (and a look of visual unity) without forcing the writer to conform to an incredibly strict pattern.
Plus, when most of the lines have ten syllables, and suddenly one has eight or nine, it helps to draw the reader’s attention. This can have a jarring effect, something that’s particularly interesting when considered alongside the subject matter.
Throughout ‘As from a Quiver of Arrows,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats a consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “late light” in stanza two and “would” and “wrong” in line one of stanza four.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one as well as lines two and three of stanza four.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “to a pen elsewhere —how are we to.” This can be done through the use of meter or punctuation.
- Rhetorical Question: occurs when the speaker asks a question they already have the answer to or to which they don’t expect someone to answer. In this case, the poem is filled with examples of the speaker asking someone, maybe the reader, what they should do with a dead body and that person’s belongings. For example, “Will it be / salt or late light that it melts like?”
The speaker is someone who has suffered a loss. Despite the emotionless first lines, it becomes clear as the poem progresses that the death did mean something and that the speaker is looking for answers that make everything make sense.
The purpose is to explore loss and death while also questioning the rituals around both. What is one supposed to do with themselves and with the other person’s belongings when they’re gone? And, the poem concludes, how should one regard their own feelings around remembrance?
The tone is incredibly direct. Throughout, the speaker acknowledges issues surrounding death, the treatment of a body, and the consideration of one’s possessions without hiding anything. He is willing to talk directly about difficult subjects.
The themes are death and remembrance. The latter comes into play in the background as the speaker considers how the dead person is supposed to be remembered in regard to societal norms and what feels right.
The mood is contemplative. The reader is likely going to be left with many questions of their own. They may be overwhelmed or baffled by the speaker’s barrage of questions and find themselves seeking out answers they don’t have.
Readers who enjoyed ‘As from a Quiver of Arrows’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Death is Nothing At All’ by Henry Scott Holland – speaks thoughtfully about the nature of death. The speaker explains that it’s not a real separation.
- ‘Death, be not Proud’ by John Donne – is one of the poet’s best poems about death. It tells the listener not to fear Death as he keeps morally corrupt company and only leads to Heaven.
- ‘This House and What is Dead’ by Li-Young Lee—explores themes of life, death, and the possibility, or impossibility, of finding peace.