My Father, Playing Tennis

by Patrick Phillips

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.

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).