Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Patrick Phillips : Distinguished Entry, 2004

Blue Ridge Bestiary

Three Elegies for O.

Blue Ridge Bestiary

1. Vulture

Business never slows for the air's ubiquitous
morticians, their spiraling so effortless

we might admit its beauty if we didn't know
how eagerly, in those ridiculous black boas,

they wait to begin the endless dissipation
we take as proof: we've been forsaken,

unable to believe our angels of deliverance
rise even to the murky heaven of catfish.

2. Catfish

Greedy face of the zoot-suited villain
in a movie, sharpening his dagger-thin

moustache: sonsabitches I'd wish against
each time the bobber ducked and danced--

who swallowed all my best lures whole
and hissed, as with the crusted needle-nose

I ripped the hook and the hooked heart out
of a thousand, gasping cotton mouths.

3. Cottonmouth

The cure for life, said Socrates, is dying.
The cure for snakebite: slice your skin,

suck poison, then the guidebook says breathe
easily as the viper glides through brittle leaves.

A pit in its face can see your thudding heart.
Its flicked tongue tastes you sweating in the dark.

And even the severed head strikes with venom,
as if death's never dead, just playing possum.

4. Possum

Of all the corpses, none's more easily forgotten
than those bellies strewn beside the road. Rotten

entrails flaking into the treads of tires,
dark shapes hunkered on the lowest wires

as the whole scene flares into that brightness
through which we hurtle past each oracle, oblivious

of what it means to see them suffer
and rise from ashes on the wings of vultures.

--As published in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring, 2004)

Three Elegies for O.

1. Pictures of the Dead

How could they know that they no longer are
what, within each little square, they are?

Frozen there like children playing tag, like they'll
wake when we get to where they are.

Some days they look at us like nobody we know.
Like the exquisite paper dolls they are.

And some days with a glance we smell their hair.
Smoke and leaves. That autumn where they are.

What do you want from me? some seem to say,
half-dead already. Now so clearly dead before they are.

And each time we look, the glossy windows darken.
Even the dogs stop wondering where they are.

We stare at ourselves, arm in arm with them.
Children point and ask us who they are.


2. In the Museum of Your Last Day

there is a coat on a coat hook in a hall.
Work gloves in the pockets, pliers and bent nails.

There is a case of Quaker State for the Ford.
Two cans of spray paint in a crisp brown bag.

A mug on a book by the hi-fi.
A disc that starts on its own: Boccherini.

There is a dent in the soap the shape of your thumb.
A swirl in the glass when it fogs.

And a gray hair that twines
through the tines of a little black comb.

There is a watch laid smooth on a wallet.
And pairs of your shoes everywhere.

A phone no one answers. A note that says Friday.
Your voice on the tape talking softly.

3. Elegy Ending in a Dream

I thought it was like being broken.
It's like being filled with cold sand.

I thought it was fleeting, like passion.
All night in your place the plate shines.

I thought love was the meaning of heaven.
Even heaven turns to shit on my tongue.

I thought we die meant like the sun.
All day the sun sinks in the limbs.

I thought a squirrel's nest had blown down.
And found nestled inside it your hands.