Mark Phillips


Eleven Pieces


Matted tail. Yellow mucus hardening at the corners of his mouth. Backs away from food as if it were poison.

He wants to be alone in darkness.

I made him a little bed inside a cupboard, with a bowl of water and a towel for a mattress. Drinks, hobbles out onto the floor with a single feeble cry. Can't make the box on his own, dribbles his few pathetic drops on the floor before I reach him. Crawls back into the dark.

Horrible to watch a poor creature starve to death.

Matted hair. The slow-motion movements of the drugged and feeble. You back away from food as if it were poison.
When the nurse leaves you reach the light switch with a book: you want to be alone in darkness. Just yourself and three million tubes and blinking lights.
Life shares your sense of humor. How ironic for it to be this, of all things.

The innocence of animals. She says, "He never ever did anything..."


Black curtains, black towels, black sheets, black pillows, black rugs, black jeans, black shirts, black hair, black glasses, black scabs on bruised black veins. Black eyes, black outs, black coffee, black forest cake.

Under the Big Black Sun:

i built a shrine on the kitchen wall
with flowers and florida souvenirs
you were walking through the house last night
i knew it was you from the space in your steps

Her sister said, "She comes in here with all that long blond hair, and they give her free food..."


She's not sure she knows her birthday.

Her passport says April 8, but that's the date her father got around to registering her with the authorities.

She once asked him, after leaving home, for the correct date, in order to consult an astrologer. On a tiny scrap of paper kept in "a special place," he'd recorded September 15 in minute Chinese characters. But, she's not sure if that might refer to one of her six sisters and brothers.

"You are not important. You will not go to college. Your brothers will go to college. Our work is for their futures. You will become the responsibility of your husband."
The patriarch, thin, balding, liver spots on scale-like skin, pasty from lack of sun. In the back of his shop by artificial light he works gold with skill, while in the front the women cater to customers.

After the students were shot down she fled, first to the jungle, later to America, where she landed in your bed with great hope and loneliness.


Cigarette ashes inside her car, thick like gray-white slush, sticking to surfaces as if they were damp: the steering column, the dashboard, the finger grips of the steering wheel, the gear-shift, the hand brake, ashes a quarter inch thick, more ashes flying in the breeze from the air vents, accumulating inside her car as they doubtless have inside her body. Real and metaphorical at the same time, like little similes of a life already turned to ash, turned to dust, while she still breathes, albeit painfully, with that deep rolling cough lifelong smokers develop, wet-sounding, like gray-white phlegm.


"Thank you," she said, although in all honesty it hadn't been much. "I feel less empty."


My cancer is like a friend who screens me from those parts of the world from which I choose to disengage.

My cancer is like a business suit investing me with formal propriety.

My cancer is like an old pet, whose every inarticulate grunt and sigh I understand perfectly.

My cancer is like a cloak of invisibility which hides me from those I choose to avoid.


He walks with raised elbows, as if they were resting on fence posts to either side. Baggy jeans, old shirt with faded green-and-white horizontal stripes. Eyes downcast, following his footfalls from below salt-and-pepper hair. Despite his smile you read great loneliness. Everything about him says, resignation, as if some primordial defeat has left him reconciled to the fate that nothing will be his, nothing will change, and no-one will ever know.

The cruelty of children. The weaker kids, less agile or less intelligent, singled out for abuse that never ends, day after day, until they believe it themselves.
In my neighborhood the victim was Brian, a nice kid, inoffensive, but socially and physically awkward to the point that some of us suspected he really was retarded. I remember our meanness being more subtle, and probably more damaging, than the ordinary verbal kind. It was always as though we couldn't wait to be away from him. That in our judgment he was too slow to bother with, and not worth waiting for. In memory I picture him downcast and isolated; I have no mental pictures of him smiling.

In the lunch room he sits alone at a great round table sized for twelve, empty chairs on all sides.


With her sister at the aquarium. Anchovies by the hundreds, swimming in endless circles, like a living loop of silken rope, shimmering in the light.

But it's hard. She talks about her sister on the drive down and you have to turn your face away to hide the tears.

Then the hardest moment. In one breath she asks, "What type of women attract you?", and, "What kind of relationship do you want with me?"

She's lovely, she's lonely, she's in pain. She's your friend who's meant so much to you. She's affection and truth, and spaghetti and beer, and a warm bed where you've slept as brother and sister when the nights were ice and demons howled around you both. And you want her, yes lord, you want her true.

"To be," you force yourself to say. Because at last she's always and forever her sister's little sister. You can't look at her without those memories. Your feelings for her sister would break her heart. "Friends."

Her disappointment is sharp and hard, and you hold her hand the whole day, and the drive home.


The way she leaves half-full ashtrays at points around the house, as territorial markers, like dogs leaving shit in the park.


Thin boys in a '68 Chevy Nova, canary yellow. Whip around a clifftop curve, windows down, breathing sea breeze and warm night air.

Boy in the driver's seat. Tall. Messy hair, jet-black, fine like baby hair, long. Thin as an insect, impossibly energetic. Cheap Trick on the radio. Likes that song from Budokan, "Clock Strikes Ten".

Boy in the passenger's seat. Tall. Neat hair, auburn, well-combed, short with trimmed sideburns. Impossibly thick black glasses, clean, with minute vertical lines etched in both lenses to correct his slight crosseye. In his lap is Najda by Andre Breton. He smiles a smile edged with practiced irony, slapping time against it with his own sardonic brand of enthusiasm. He likes that song too.

Politics and art. Auburn-haired boy is a college student. He's discovered anarchism, Surrealism, coffee, and the campus' radical newspaper collective.

Rock and roll. Black-haired boy is between academic sinecures, having recently been informed by the local high school authorities that his services as a student are no longer required. Recently he's discovered the MC5, King Curtis, and Monty Python. Music is his politics. The only truths he feels confident in are found within etched vinyl grooves.

That's where they meet: the impulse to freedom vibrating inside those wax and plastic grooves. The black-haired boy's anarchism is emotive, his friend's is intellectual. It's the same insight.

Auburn-haired boy rolls down the passenger-side window. Well-do-do ocean-front neighborhood with expensive houses kept clean and cosey by hired help, brown-skinned mostly. People who set the table, but don't eat there.

"There are no innocent bourgeoisie!," he shouts.

He rolls the window up with a satisfied, sardonic smile. His friend grins and nods approval. They turn up the radio.

Gonna get down
Gonna get on down
Gonna get down
Gonna get on down


It's like Norm walking into the bar on Cheers. The entire Emergency Room staff, from the orderlies to the nurses to the on-duty physician to the janitors to the security guard all turn and smile, calling, "Mark!"