by Patrick Phillips

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,
dividing darkness
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.

PATRICK PHILLIPS is the author of three poetry collections, Elegy for a Broken Machine(Knopf, 2015); Boy (Georgia, 2008); and Chattahoochee (Arkansas, 2004), which won the 2005 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has also translated When We Leave Each Other: Selected Poems of Henrik Nordbrandt (Open Letter, 2013). His honors include both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Fulbright at the University of Copenhagen, a Pushcart Prize, the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Discovery / The Nation Prize from the 92nd Street Y. His poems appear in magazines such as Poetry, Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, and The Nation, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Writer’s Almanac.” He grew up in the foothills of North Georgia, and now lives in Brooklyn and is Associate Professor of English at Drew University. “Barbershop” appears in Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).