Five Poemsby Patrick Phillips
Five poems from Chattahoochee: "My Lovely Assistant," "The Chimney," "My Father," "Playing Tennis," "A Valediction," "Chattahoochee"
Selected by Billy Reynolds, with an interview with the poet.
MY LOVELY ASSISTANT
After the episode of That’s Incredible!
in which a whole family of Armenians
in sequined shirts ate fire
and spewed blue, burning plumes, my brother
tied a cottonball to a bent coathanger
and dipped the end in gasoline.
What made us who we are,
one crazy, fearless—one always afraid?
I stood by the ping-pong table
in our mother’s only sparkly dress,
playing the role of Patricia, Lovely Assistant
because he was bigger than me,
and a master of the headlock,
and threatened, with his breath of snot
and bubble gum and cigarettes,
a vicious wedgy if I didn’t.
So I handed him the silver Zippo,
not knowing what future waited for my brother,
still thinking I could save him
who hated being saved—
who took my dare one night to lie
on the yellow stripe of Brown’s Bridge Road
and stayed there talking to himself,
pointing to a satellite adrift among the stars,
while I begged him to get up.
What sat in an upstairs bedroom
giggling at the click of our father’s .38.
Who loved the sting of the torch
sizzling his spit-glazed tongue.
So I kept one eye on the door, knowing
from experience how it would end,
how all things turned finally to anger
in that house, where he leaned back, shark-eyed,
and took a swig from the red gas can,
the spitting image of our father in a rage.
He stood between me and that pain.
Knowingly, he raised the magic wand up to his lips.
I sit and wonder what it means—
my brother’s sweet face
bursting into flames.
Inside the chimney my father built
with stones we hauled from Six Mile Creek,
above the flue, beneath the soot,
is a penny I watched him press into the mortar
before he hefted another slab of shale,
another fractured gypsum brick,
so after the pitched roof falls,
after the shingles and cherry rafters crack
and burn in someone else’s fire,
until the chimney stands marooned
in the clearing in the woods, and later falls,
smooth stones sliding down the hill,
when someone, a young man walking to the creek mouth,
stops at the glint from a rock, mica, or quartz,
and finds a coin so black and thin
he can barely read the year—
then, my father said, someone will think of him,
long ago pulling the penny from his pocket
and pressing it against the drying chimney,
leaving his long thumbprint swirling.
MY FATHER, PLAYING TENNIS
strikes a figure somewhere between
Australopithecus robustus, with its thick skull-crest
and massive, gnashing jaw,
and Homo habilis, that big-brow’d,
tool-making, late Pleistocenian,
wielding his racquet like a fire-charred limb,
eyes flashing, nostrils flaring
as he stalks the little green ball,
so in love with the chase
it must be a vestigial trait,
coded in the deepest, most ancient folds
of his cerebral cortex,
a throwback to the days
when the small, furry thing
darting just out of reach meant dinner,
when the zeal with which he smashes
easy volleys smack
at the other guy’s face meant survival.
Raising his sweat-banded forearm,
thick-boned and coated with black hair,
like the silver-back upland Gorilla gorilla,
he lofts the ball softly, cocks his arm,
and then kills it: grunting and spitting,
arms flailing wildly as he charges the net,
while in the far court I stand, just like what I am:
a fur-less, immature Homo Sapiens sapiens
staring, weak-kneed, at what I came from.
I watched you snap a rabbit’s spine
while stroking it and cooing.
I heard a shot from the hill you climbed
with a gray-faced dog I loved.
And when I winged a sparrow perching
on a sway-backed power line
you laid your thick hand to its skull
and made the shrieking air stand still.
Did you mean that there’s no heaven
on earth but dignity? Did you mean
we too will pray some day for mercy?
All I can do is guess now what you
never said but meant. And pretend
somehow you hear this as you rise,
like when I watched the stillness then,
whispering Wake up. Fly.
Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?
canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?
canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds,
that abundance of waters may cover thee?
—Job 38: 33-34
Like a spirit moving through the flower
of moonlight hanging in the water,
through the depth that never warms
where carp and catfish wallow,
I can almost see the bottom of the lake,
the black bass diving,
in the feathery tissue of its gills,
as curl after curl rises from my reel and disappears
through a window’s tilted frame,
around a tree stump’s rotten bowl,
over a scuttled Lincoln
half-buried in the mud.
Below, clear fins fan the water,
and above I whisper to the dark,
asking it to rise
as I wind in a foot,
then give back a yard of the line,
my finger on the filament feeling
the whittled shapes of things, the gnarled
remains of another life—
a mussel-crusted fence post,
a mailbox orange with rust,
the limb of a pine where a tire once hung,
turning all afternoon on the breeze.
My rod bends toward breaking,
then straightens as the fish darts free
through the sunken junkyard
that grows by the weight of one lure
from my tacklebox, its silver spoon spinning
as I reel the snapped line back on the spool,
slack as a fallen kite string.
The river is no more than a shimmer
of gray and white dots
in September 1949, as Sorghum Crowe
cranks the arm that raises the bucket
through his reflection deep in a well.
The background is blurry,
sun glaring on water,
on what can only be the Chattahoochee
as it once snaked between hills.
The face in the foreground white
as a bare bulb, stubbled and squinting,
half-listening, or not listening at all,
to what the photographer says.
Soon he’ll sign the deed to the last tract
in the flood plain, giving birth to the future
as he silently scratches his name,
as the absurd churches, jacked onto flatbeds,
shift on their bricks at the edge of the town,
as the gates of the dam begin to close slowly,
and a man starts a vigil over the river,
marking its rise each day
with a nick on the stilts of Brown’s Bridge,
his face reflected at the widening edge.
This dead face doesn’t mourn, though:
Sorghum Crowe, who picked up
and moved to high ground,
who looked out over the lake,
smooth and opaque
on warm summer evenings,
and lived his last days
for the wet slap of a fish
breaking the water’s wide silence.
Some tragedies are comic:
a man dies for twenty-three dollars
but would’ve done it for less.
In coveralls, a ball cap, black whorls of beard,
he crouches like a catcher
to bury his jar under the magnolia.
He stamps on the mound, smoothes it with his shoe.
There is movement, of course,
order to disorder—the brown river rising,
flooding the house, the barn,
the blossoming magnolia. There is the man
wading down the steps of his porch like a Baptist,
cool water filling his pockets with mica
as he dog paddles over the place
where the shimmer should be, the glint
of the pickle jar through the Chattahoochee.
He takes a long breath before going,
then goes. A small act in the story,
one body floating downstream,
becoming a creature of water:
the brown eyes open,
the blue skin spotted with leeches,
the throat filled with pollen and leave—
floating upstream the day the flood crests.
Only the living need a spirit
for the physics of buoyancy. For us
there’s always a message swirling in the eddy,
a voice in the movements of water.
If the drowned man must speak, then—
as his body, stripped bare, floats away—let him say this:
the oldest instinct is to find what you bury,
to come back and dig up your bones.
What would have been
a bridge between mountains, spanning the sky,
is a stage for daredevil boys now,
renewing each year the rust patches
on the ledge where they perch in wet cutoffs,
the tan thighs of even the oldest
trembling over the glass-hard surface below,
as the steel grows slowly too hot for standing
and forces each one to choose:
to climb over the guardrail and watch from the road
or step forward into that nothing
high over the girls looking up from the shore,
high over that world underwater,
where each year at least one is lost
in the tangles of barbed wire that hang
just within reach of the deepest swan dive.
At first it’s just what you hoped: the body in flight,
making its easy turn in the air.
Then comes the fist-in-the-gut when you know
you’re not flying but falling headfirst,
arms windmilling, then clutching to cover the skull
as it shatters into a swarm of white bees.
Only after the eyes adjust
can you see the pale flash of an ankle,
the blur of another boy’s fingers
waving back the body’s strong will to rise.
Only when the heart tries to open the rib cage
do you know: that to struggle makes it worse,
the barbs cutting your skin, wasting breath,
until the last silver tube slithers from your lips
and rises, unnoticed by those
watching the smooth surface for a sign.
With one eye open I see them
rising and banking,
wobbling in the sky
as they must have been doing
since dawn: looking for food,
looking through the black eyes
in their bloody faces,
at the whole valley laid out—
the hills quilled with pines,
the crooked arm of the shore,
the small square dock where I lie,
rising and falling on the water’s taut skin.
They glide patiently, certain of their purpose,
knowing as they do what will come—
that what always comes will come this time, too,
as they gather above me, forming
a circle over the dog on the highway,
a circle over the calf in the pasture,
a circle over the possum face-down in the lake.
They know the changed walk of the maimed,
the jaundiced eye of the snake-bit,
the stagger of the newborn because
this is their place: to carry us over the water,
over the trees and smoking chimneys
to their roost at the mouth of the creek,
where even the dead vulture
heaped by the shore is changed
from feathers into feathers
perched on the limbs of the pine—
high over the dock, where the hungry
return to their tree, bringing
the scattered pieces together again.