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Dennis Phillips


An excerpt from the novel

You can read an interview — Dennis Phillips in conversation
with Sheila Murphy — in this issue of Jacket.


My throat’s torn on fish rind and coconut. My fingers are bleeding. Fucking sand fleas popping; mosquitoes buzzing, marshy rivulets breaching my shoreline even when I can’t find them. I’ve got to get out of here.
     Sitting back in the back of the cave I catch the opening blue ocean, sky, whatever it is, just the bright day shooting sapphires at me. You’ve porched me here deader than if you killed me.
     Anodyne my ass. Where did I dig up these monks and damsels? At the terminator of a globe they forgot to give me? In the eroded melodies that leach in from nowhere? In the burnt-out core of stories I promised I’d never stoop to? In the blank slate I want and fear more than almost anything? But down the hill it’s better. Right Carmen? You’re always lurking out there three steps past the edge of the porch.
     I had a good morning on the reef, Carmen. Before I only heard but now I see you tabled and pounded like every tropical agony fantasy, desperate, revolting and craved. But it can’t be you. You’re elsewhere, dead or alive. They knew their man; they planted their demons, as if they didn’t know that I’d plant my own, tired and besieged by faces and voices, and then Chiara and Benedictus, laced with time like a slow poison, lazy in the heat, troubled in the pressures, water and weather, troubled by the growing weight of anything remembered, piece by piece, slower and slower, ink by ink, each one of you, my friendly names, all tongue and image. Here in the dark.
     Joseph steps on concrete. Open your eyes Joseph.
     Joseph Spero opens his eyes. He touches the dull sheen of the thick oaken door in front of him. The door is open. Beyond is a study, unoccupied and spartan. He steps on concrete floor before he steps on woolen carpet. The large table is medieval in content. Skull, crucifix, quill and ink.
     “You are not allowed to be here,” says a voice behind him. He does not turn to see who speaks.
     “You must leave,” says the voice, and he feels a grip around his biceps. He doesn’t resist the pulling.
      Joseph Spero can’t turn to see the force that pulls him, nor can he see anything but details. An arch he sees, mountains through it. The floor he sees and the flame of a candle nearby and hears singing far away, tightly echoed.
     “I just got here,” says Joseph Spero. “I’d like to look around.”
     Joseph Spero walks the cloistered halls of a concrete abbey. A cold wind blows through. Drip, drop, he hears a leak. Clear water flows over stone. Visiting Joseph must not seek it.
     At the end of the arched hall, Joseph Spero finds a door, this one closed. May one knock upon a door if one finds it closed? May one open a door if a door is closed? One can’t scratch through a door, it’s far too thick. But this door is opened, what a relief.
     At the hall’s end he finds a portal.
     “Not inside. Not inside,” a panting woman’s voice exclaims.
     “Next door,” says Joseph. “Next door, please. I know her. I know her.”
     “Know me again, will you  Joey.”
     Now he can see her tabled and wrapped around a hooded, bare-assed, undulator.
     “I can’t keep the cadences straight,” says Joseph.
     “You should’ve looked somewhere else, buddy. This is the parting shot they gave you,” eclipsed face beneath the humping hood erupts.
     Joseph Spero walks the concrete floors of a windy abbey, and finding no one there to help him, opens a door that he hopes will warm him. He steps into a room where a fire burns and a chair is empty.
     “If you sit in the chair I’ll show you a curious thing,” says a voice, this time softly.
     This time Joseph turns. A priest in wool clothing says, “Look here.”
     In a box in the hands of the monk Joseph sees on a street corner in a dingy city, Joseph waiting, for something, for someone. He looks at him waiting for a long time.
     “Take that away,” an angry Joseph commands.
     “You must be more genteel,” a scolding monk advises.
     And now the wind turns sharp and Joseph looks for shelter. He ducks under the great stump of a tree and finds the opening of a cave. The air is much warmer. His heart is pounding in his chest and he’s frightened, but can’t say why.
     He hears scraping and the wind is gone. He hears the ocean and his heart slows. And still he hears scraping.
     “That’s Chiara gathering copra,” says Carmen glistening wet. “But don’t think for a minute that she’ll do you any good. That’s as close as she’ll get but I could get closer, don’t you think? I could hold you in my arms right now. That would calm you, wouldn’t it Joey? But you know I won’t, isn’t that right? And you also know that you’ll never know why.”


Was I asleep at my table? Why leave anything out? But I’ve left too much out. I need to take you back. I want you to know more about it. It’s important.
     It’s mainly that street corner that’s important. It was the first step of my exile. Maybe place is everything. And I waited and waited, like a stupid pet. But you don’t know that yet.
     Carmen said, “Something’s weird. Stay with me. We’ll have sex, grab some lunch and drive there together. You don’t need them to help you. We can do it together.” It was only a car return.
     From here my stomach knots at my stupidity. It wasn’t that I thought I needed help finding a rental car agency one city away, but you don’t know where I was or why. It was the trip after the car return that lured me. First to Glasgow, then to a small village at the coast. Tarbert it was called. What was I afraid of missing? That’s the question that tortures me now, now that the full absurdity and treachery of the whole thing’s so clear to me. That’s the real question. Because it wasn’t that I didn’t know better. I did. Or at least part of me did. But what does that even mean? I knew what we all know: that people follow patterns. So fucking what? I should have known that Emerson and McPherson would follow theirs, and that things work out and there’d be a conference, or there wouldn’t be a conference because things wouldn’t work out. That’s so simple even a stranded, crazed islander can understand it. That’s not the question though. The question’s why did I feel that I needed to go with them? And inside the question’s the gut knotting, humiliating truth that it was clear to them what I’d do because I was always the most predictable and obvious one no matter what I thought.
     Carmen tried to stop me. Could she see what was happing, or did she just want a last afternoon with me? Had she seen me as they did? While I was placing myself at the top of the food chain, did every one else see me as a flagrant baitfish? They were leading me into a trap. What else could it have been? She couldn’t have been party to it. She never liked either of them, especially Malcolm. No. I fell for the propaganda of atmosphere. That was Emerson Vogel’s greatest gift. He could make the ordinary seem extraordinary. He could make the moment seem momentous. He could make the vacuum that poets live in seem real and important and historical.
     If he turned out to be a pathetic Mephistopheles, what a painfully cheap Faust was I. I traded a few hours of self-delusion to join the over-rehearsed list of Emerson Vogel’s straw men. Or worse. I was only bait, pure and simple.  
      Would I miss a chance to make literary history? Wasn’t that always the unspoken temptation? Didn’t Emerson always come back with a tale worthy of a biography? Oh, Joseph, you missed that one badly. It was Emerson who was writing the history, and the thesis was that he was the Figure. I could be the amusing counter-point in a few stories about his genius. But share the stage? That simple concept was the come-on that he knew I’d fall for. And I fell for every trope and gambit, gullible, proud and stupid.
     But wait. You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?
     “Just stay here with me,” Carmen said. And I kissed her goodbye at the door to our fancy hotel room and left with Emerson Vogel and Malcolm McPherson.
     I followed their car as they led me through the back roads from Edinburgh to Glasgow. When we got to the outskirts, where the car rental agency was, I followed the plan we had discussed: Since the street was very busy and there would certainly be no parking, I would pull in, pay for the car and walk back to the street where, after having circled the block once or twice, they would pull up and I would hop in. From there we were to travel to Tarbert, where McPherson wanted to visit an old friend of the family who happened to be a very well connected editor. No doubt it was that meeting that attracted me.
     I pulled into the space reserved for car returns and waved at my friends as they proceeded on. Ten minutes later, back on the street, I watched the cars pass.
     I watched for half an hour. At first I assumed they had been held up in traffic, then that they might have been in an accident. I walked back into the agency to see if perhaps they had called. Back outside, I continued to wait, watching each car and bus and truck in the constant stream. Each of the hundreds of cars I watched pass added to my suspension between anger and concern, among impulses about what I should do and how much longer I should do nothing. Should I make my way to a bus or train station? Maybe I should just re-rent my car and drive back to Edinburgh. Once again I walked back into the car agency. This time I used their phone to call Carmen. I was partly curious to see if they had left a message with her, partly I just wanted to hear her voice. At least we could have a laugh at her having been right, once again, about Emerson. She was not in the room. I left no message.
     It’s odd how many thoughts and actions occurred in the next millisecond. The first thought was a kind of epiphany. Suddenly it was clear that Emerson and McPherson were letting me hang on the street corner while they were getting their dicks sucked by one of the high-class whores Emerson was always telling me that McPherson had connections to. My fury at the certainty that this had to have been their plan all along, and that my standing in attendance for however long was either of no consequence or part of the amusement, arched over the scene like a proscenium under which thoughts and actions instantly compiled: I decided to re-rent the car, drive back to Edinburgh, pick up Carmen and head to the airport. I hung up the phone. I turned around. I sought to make my desire known to one of the car rental clerks and noticed that the office was empty. Now, two rotund men in suits walked into the agency office. Were they officials from the car rental company? No. But they wanted to speak to me. I froze. A niggling little thought peeped up: that the appearance of these suited men was related to the absence of my friends. But at this millisecond it had not yet occured to me that my good friend Emerson Vogel was any more than self-involved. It would take considerably longer for me to realize the degree to which he had been active in the scheme that landed me here, half a world away, on this island.
     “Are you Joseph Spero?” asked the American accent of one of the two suited men.
     “Who the hell are you?” I replied.
     The other man, apparently the good cop, intervened: “Sorry sir,” he began, also with an American accent. “We should have identified ourselves. I am Agent Robbins and this is Agent Allan. We are with the Central Authority.”
     “Do you mean the U.S. Central Authority?” I asked.
     “That’s the one,” snapped Agent Allan.
     “I didn’t realize that the jurisdiction of the American secret police included Europe.” I was belligerent. That was naïve.
     “Are you Joseph Spero, sir?” asked Agent Robbins.
     Through the plate glass agency window beyond Agent Robbins’ chubby form, I saw Malcolm McPherson’s car emerge from the mass of traffic and pull to the curb. Without answering my agents, I watched Emerson Vogel and Malcolm McPherson walk across the sidewalk toward me and my interrogators.
     “What’s going on?” asked Malcolm as he and Emerson stepped into the office. He was affecting an excellent rendition of surprise and outrage.
     “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” I answered. “Where the hell have you two been? I’ve been waiting here for over an hour. Now I’ve got the secret police asking me if I’m me.”
     “We’re from the Central Authority, sir. Not the secret police,” Agent Allan corrected.
     “What do you gentlemen want with Mr. Spero,” asked Malcolm McPherson in his most upper class Scots accent. “My name is Malcolm McPherson. I am a citizen of this country and Mr. Spero is my guest. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to you people that Mr. Spero is an important poet. But, if you cannot make your business clear to me instantly, I will be on the phone to your State Department. I am a personal friend of Sir Arlington Aspry, the British Foreign Secretary. I’m sure that if I need to enlist his aid in correcting this outrageous breech of our sovereignty there will be stiff price to pay. Now, do I make myself clear?”
     “With all due respect, Mr. McPherson,” said Agent Allan, “I don’t see which point you’re trying to make clear. I don’t give a rat’s ass about who you are or who you know. As for breeches of sovereignty, we are here with permission of the office of the Foreign Secretary.”
     “Gentlemen,” intervened Good Cop Robbins, “There’s really no need for you to be upset, especially Mr. Spero. We just need to ask him a couple of questions and give him a bit of important information. We just need a few minutes in private with you, Mr. Spero.”
     McPherson’s display irritated my anger. Emerson, of course, was silent during the exchange. I felt a twinge of intuition that told me to speak to the two cops and get it over with. I wasn’t sure what they wanted, but I didn’t think they’d try to kill me or arrest me. So I asked Emerson and McPherson to excuse us, and stepped onto the loud sidewalk to hear what Agents Robbins and Allan wanted.
     The funny thing is, I can’t remember the details of what they said. I remember very clearly the sounds of the traffic, the late morning light, that a cheek tick of Agent Robbins was matched by an eye twitch of Agent Allan. I remember needing to suppress a smile at the pair of mobile faces. I remember thinking that the food in Scotland was not agreeing with at least one of them. I remember pondering the idea of the business suit as a police uniform. And I still have a vague essence of their demands; that there was some kind of investigation going on, that they might want me to come to a hearing in D.C., that I shouldn’t worry, I wasn’t the subject of the investigation, that I didn’t even need to bring an attorney. It was just routine. I also remember thinking what an odd routine it was to send two agents to Scotland just to inform a non-suspect that there was going to be an investigation.
     I can’t bring back any of the exact street conversation, as vivid as the exchange in the agency office still is. But two things are etched deeply; I was very worried and I knew that I’d need a lawyer.

     Emerson Vogel, Malcolm McPherson and I drove west to the town of Tarbert. The trip lasted hours, or seemed to. I was so mad that I knew my voice would tremble if I said anything, so I said nothing. McPherson was squeezed shut, furious that I dared to be angry and outraged that I wasn’t grateful for his display of magnificent plumage before the agents of the law. Emerson was simply silent.
     When we finally arrived in Tarbert, the tide was out and the fishing boats sat in the muddy basin of the walled harbor.
      I let Emerson and McPherson go off to their meeting. Wasn’t that why I had come with them in the first place: to meet with whomever Malcolm had arranged for us to meet? But now all I wanted was a shot of whiskey that I hoped would numb me into some understanding of what I had just been through.
     In the bar of the Hotel Tarbert, I opted for beer instead of whiskey, sat at a low table with my back to windows that overlooked the harbor, and waited to calm down.
     I knew that at some point Emerson would join me, which, after a while, he did.
     “You have to try the kippered trout,” was his greeting as he sat across from me.
     “I just had one.”
     “No, you really need to try one.”
     He summoned the waiter and ordered a kippered trout and a double whiskey.
     “The Malkster was loaded for bear, wasn’t he,” attempted Emerson.
     “Where the fuck were you guys,” was my counter. “I waited for over an hour. If you had some place to go, why couldn’t you have told me about it? If you were off getting your dicks sucked, I could have waited in a bar or a bookstore. I just can’t fathom why you’d let me stand there. Maybe if I’d been somewhere else, those two goons wouldn’t have found me.”
     Usually the steel-trap mind of Emerson Vogel works faster than it did that afternoon. But then, he had a lot of information to collate to formulate his lie. I might have expected better than the boilerplate that he came up with:
     “I didn’t know where he was going. He had a meeting. I was waiting too. You know Malcolm. I said, ‘What about Joe?’ All he said was he’d just be a minute.”
     “So you were waiting in the car while he got his dick sucked? Give me break, Emerson.”
     “I don’t know what he. You know. He told me he had to meet with this guy. I was double-parked. He left me with his keys and said ‘Just move if the cops come.’”
     Et cetera, et cetera.
     Oh Joseph Spero. Look at your silly, blinded trust. Look at this story now. And you didn’t see it coming. You just couldn’t process the connections. They were probably worried that they’d be too obvious. They underestimated you, Joe.


“As it happened, it was Simone Januensis who would become the famous physician,” said Chiara Masci, adjusting her weight in a chair that, until now, Father Benedictus had never given a moment’s thought to. Now the chair’s particularities, especially the underfolding of leather on the arm rests and seat, seemed to draw him into their landscape. “I’m not certain that your brother cared for fame, but Simone Januensis had an appetite for attention and recognition. Who can know what jealousy or rage he felt when Oddone Colonna selected Tomasso to be his physician.”
     Chiara Masci paused, arrested by something she saw in the face of Father Benedictus.
     “You wish I had never come here.”
     Father Benedictus looked behind her at the door through which she had come.
     “You are here, Chiara Masci,” was his only response.
     The winds, which had calmed in the early morning, were now beginning to moan wherever San Zeno resisted them.
     “Tell me,” asked Father Benedictus, looking directly into Chiara Masci’s dark eyes, “do you mean to ask me to leave San Zeno? Was that the wish of the Holy Father; that I should seek out my brother?”
     Father Benedictus noticed that the young, erect woman seated across from him did not react to his question, but for a simple gesture: she took into her left hand the tight braid of dark, heavy hair that hung straight down her back, and brought it over her right shoulder. Her face remained calm. Her right hand briefly stroked and then released the tassel of unbraided hair that extended below the satin frontier of a black ribbon. The braid now draped her right breast and continued along her torso, almost to her waist.
      “Before Pope Nicholas died,” she said entwining her long fingers and resting them in her lap, “he asked to speak with me alone. He told me that there was one great injustice for which he felt himself responsible. He implored me to try to set right what he had done. He believed his only hope for salvation rested in this single correction. He urged me to include you in accomplishing his last earthly wish, and whispered to me the phrase that I repeated to you. He told me to use my judgment, but at the same time, he insisted that you should assist me.”
     “And this injustice that he wanted to correct was inflicted on my brother?”
     “Yes,” Chiara Masci said, “in a manner of speaking.”
     “And for this one fact of fraternity, the Pontiff felt that I should leave my duties and my devotions?”
     “I’m sorry, Father, but the pope never told me why he thought it so crucial to include you.”
     “Well, where is my brother? Didn’t you mention a daughter? Didn’t you also mention your sister, or imply that she is dead?”
     Chiara Masci, still possessed by calm, reached her left hand out to the edge of the abbot’s table.
     “Father Benedictus, let me continue the story. Forgive me for interrupting myself. But at that moment I could see in your face how great a disruption I and my task are to you. I regret, deeply regret, that I am disturbing you. Yet, perhaps, as you hear the events which your brother had to endure, you will feel that the disruption is just.”
     Father Benedictus felt a heavy inevitability press him. It was not unpleasant. He watched Chiara Masci again shift her weight in the chair he had never noticed before. He watched her mouth and then her eyes as she began.
     “What Simone Januensis could not have known the day Oddone Colonna selected Tomasso, was that soon the Cardinal of Palestrina would become Pope, and that the new pontiff would remember the evening of the death of the young nobleman. What Simone Januensis also could not have known was that the new pontiff would soon need to appoint a papal physician, and that Tomasso Rota, the pope’s first choice but now the personal physician of his most important patron, would put forward the name of Simone Januensis.
     “My brother would be pope for only four years. In that time, Simone Januensis sought to accumulate as much power and influence as he could. To his mind, apparently, that meant destroying anyone who might pose a threat to his position.”
     “And Simone Januensis saw Tomasso as a threat?”
     “From his actions it would be difficult to infer anything else,” Chiara Masci said. “And he seemed, eventually, to have persuaded the pope of the same.”
     “That Tomasso was a threat? But that’s absurd. Tomasso would never act against a friend. At least not the Tomasso I knew.” And then doubt, now beginning to inflect every thought of Father Benedictus, overcame memory. “Do you think he might have?”
     “No, Father, I don’t. I believe that your brother was unsuspecting and therefore worsened his plight, and his family’s, through his every dealing with the man he assumed to be his close friend and colleague.”
     “And yet,” Father Benedictus said, more to himself than to his guest, “it seems strange. I can’t imagine that the years he spent with the Colonna family would have dulled his awareness. He was always a great student of people’s behavior.”
     “But perhaps Simone Januensis was a greater manipulator than Tomasso was an observer. Tomasso seems to have focused on the substance of their continued research, while Simone Januensis was looking outward. And, as they worked on preserving their findings in writing, and expanding it into a medical lexicon that would be of help to other physicians (a project that bears Tomasso’s mark, not his partner’s) Januensis was laying the groundwork for his usurpation.
     “What my brother told me was that Tomasso, though he never underplayed his own role, also never tried to conceal that the authorship was collaborative. Simone Januensis, on the other hand, was adamant about taking credit for the book. And as the project developed, Simone Januensis began speaking of it, when out of the presence of Tomasso, as his work alone. Since the book was being copied by the papal scribes, it was easy for Simone Januensis to enforce his will. Tomasso was far away, either in residence or traveling with the Colonna. He had no idea of his friend’s machinations.”
     Father Benedictus was about to interrupt but restrained himself. He lifted the inkpot and carefully replaced it. Chiara Masci shifted slightly in her seat and again briefly touched the edge of the table.
     “You may be thinking that between the Holy See and the Colonna family, many people must have known that the compilation of the lexicon belonged to both men. You might also be thinking that were one of these prominent physicians to try to overshadow the other, the move would discredit him.”
     “I was thinking that it would require careful calculation.”
     “That is were I think the poppies came in.”
     “Did he also try to take credit for the medicine itself?”
     “Not quite,” answered Chiara Masci, feeling for the first time that the scale of Father Benedictus’ attention was dipping in her favor. “You see, the flowers from which the medicine is distilled are not found in great quantity in Italy. And, although they had undertaken to have a local monastery grow an amount that would be sufficient for their use, the crop did not do well. This necessitated that they buy the flowers’ extracted resin from traders who could tap into the abundant crop of poppies in the east, where the effects of the flowers had long been known, both good and bad.”
     “I didn’t realize that there was a bad effect.” Father Benedictus leaned forward, his gaze fixed on the left arm of Chiara Masci’s chair.
     “The anodyne produces a certain euphoria, which, once sampled, becomes increasingly desirable. Something in the medicine compels its user to use it again. And as the use continues, so does the need increase, both in frequency and quantity. Your brother and Simone Januensis, when they first noticed this effect, tested the substance on each other to try to fully understand its properties.
     “Your brother was the first to try, and found the euphoria so magnetic that he dared to try it only one more time. The second time, both the experience and the craving were more powerful than the first time. He relayed this account to Pope Nicholas some time after the event, and reported to His Holiness that, although he never again took the anodyne, occasionally it still seemed to beckon him.
     “Before Simone Januensis had an opportunity to test the medicine on himself, a curious thing happened. One day, after a storm, he was gathering herbs on a forested hillside of Perugia. While trying to reach a specimen, he lost his footing and fell. He was badly hurt and unable to climb back up the hill. To his great fortune, a hunter heard his cries for help and rescued him. To his greater fortune, your brother was visiting at the time and was able to treat the injured Januensis.
     “The worst of the injuries was a broken wrist. The pain was considerable. Both physicians saw this as a blessing to their research. So, before Tomasso set the broken bones, he administered the anodyne to Januensis, who later observed two things. The first was that the anodyne did not erase the pain so much as create an indifference to it. In fact, as Tomasso was setting the bones, Simone Januensis was commenting on the procedure with him. During the most excruciating parts of the process, Simone Januensis seemed no more than interested. He was able to report on the types of pain and the locations of the various pains, but was unmoved by them. And when Tomasso asked whether Simone Januensis was experiencing euphoria, he replied, ‘Only if indifference could be called euphoria.’
     “At first they were most interested by this masking effect. But weeks later Januensis observed to his colleague that, although he has taken considerably more of the medicine than Tomasso, he had never experienced the craving that Tomasso had. It seemed to them that there was a quality in the distillation that could address itself to pain, but, in the absence of pain, turned its beneficial nature into a destructive one.
     “During this period, Simone Januensis had occasion to administer the anodyne more often than Tomasso. As the Pope’s physician, he was caring not only for the pontiff, but for all of the roman cardinals and a host of bishops as well. Tomasso had only the Colonna household to attend, and they, for the most part, were in very good health. The result was that there were any number of upper level clerics in Rome who had been given the anodyne, and several of them, who had taken it longer than needed, or without sufficient need, had become dependant on it.
     “In several cases they merely withheld further doses of the anodyne, but the effects of abruptly ceasing the medicine once a priest had been taking it for more than a certain limited period, were so horrifying that it seemed an act of cruelty.
     “Suddenly, your brother and Simone Januensis had the need to produce more of the anodyne, for treatment and to continue their research, which was now devoted as much to helping the addicted clerics as discovering all the properties of their potent distillation.”
     She continued to look directly at Father Benedictus as she stopped speaking.
     Father Benedictus, feeling urged by the silence, said, “Word of this addiction, as you call it, never reached me. They must have worked very hard in Rome to keep that secret.”


“Get Januensis,” shouts His Holiness Pope Nicholas IV. “I want him before me within the hour.”
     Several attendants scurry. Costly leather shoes taptap on the marble floors. Great serenity surrounds the fury of a Pope, and all his fury stands alone and awesome beneath lofty vaulted ceilings.
     Enter Januensis, robed in simple scholar’s cloth. Several attendants follow but the papal hand gestures them from the hall. The physician stands at the portal.
     “Another priest has died,” thunders the pontiff.
     Simone Januensis traverses the glossy see of marble, humble scholar’s shoes tapping to the Holy Father. A courtly bow precedes his desire to kiss the pontiff’s ring or hand.
     A quieter pope, hands and rings withheld, repeats the problem: “Wasted away, Simone Januensis. Another taker of your anodyne.”
     “Tomasso Rota’s anodyne, Your Holiness.”
     “Blame is a skill you have elevated to an art, Simone Januensis. My concern is that word of this problem not spread to one more person. Let that be the skill you hone next. Leave me until I summon you.”
     Exit Simone Januensis. Alone with the marble, the gold and the cavernous space, the former Girolamo Masci folds back into his throne, fearful but uncertain that history will cast him small.


Walking calms me.
     I’m walking now, at the water’s edge, and the water’s tranquil. The night’s are still cool. This is a seasonal shift, but I haven’t charted it. I wish I had, but it’s too late to start now. Anyway, in the morning, when I slip into the water, there’s a skin of cool water resting on the warmer. I swim out to the reef I call Parrot Fish Reef. As I breathe my face washes through the thin band of cool water. I am Joseph Spero, swimming. The night winds of my island have chilled the ocean’s surface. My ventral side is warm, my dorsal side rolls through cold.
     Exhale and look down, Joseph. The sand is white and raked by surge. Deeper down darker blue. Now hold your breath and dive, Joe, down an atmosphere, maybe two, clear your ears once then twice then three times. Silver surface above and there, out in the cobalt, a silver barracuda school, hanging argent bars. You hear your heart beating and hear it slow. And hear your breath holding and feel your lungs slowly fighting more and more but trust your blood.
     Breathe, Joseph, on the surface, swim. Keep swimming, Joseph. Don’t be hungry today. Watch the bottom slope off past seeing and feel the cooled skin of surface warm then join the water body. Breathe in, Joe and see the green hills and tree-lined shore of your island. Exhale and see dark clear blue and light lighting particles down the sight line.
     Far below dolphins pass.
     “When they come for you just play possum,” father’s voice says. “That’s what we’ll tell them.”
     “Tell them what,” mother’s voice says.
     “Tell them what they need to hear. Make a plan then stick to it,” father’s voice again.
     “Will we ever leave Costa Rica?” one of them asks.
     “Will he ever leave that island?” the other one asks.
     “It must be far away,” they say. “He’s fading. A little more each day.”  
     Men came at night I say, late, who wouldn’t say why. Men came who took me away. Silent men, grim beneath hoods. Official men, guns and papers.
     “Did you tell them that you’re our son?”
     “Did you say that you’ll always be our baby?”
     Men with papers, guns and hoods, men with manacles and cars and prisons came who took me passive and possum away.
     Breathe Joseph.
     Deep below dolphins pass.
     I swam today. Beyond the reef I swam and could have kept swimming, out and out, in the deep ground swells. I could have kept going. I almost kept going.
     “They could have killed you, Buddy.” That’s what Hovic said.
     Come back, Joe. Come back to the shore.

Frigate birds pass far above.
     Now I’m safe. On my porch, at my table, in my lantern’s light. The wind has stopped and it’s quiet and Carmen it’s you I want to talk to but you’re staying away. Isn’t it the wind that wafts you away? But the air is calm. Is it the light? Is the moon not in its proper phase?
     I found you by the poolside, and you or I spoke first and you or I kissed first. I said stay with me and you said I’m married. I said you’re unhappy and you said so what.
     Hovic would ask me, what’s her name, the one you always talk to? You know her name Hovic, I’d say. You’ve got to teach me to swim better, said Hovic. But none of us swam better than you, Carmen.
     In those sweet days or so I remember, I’d peel you and you’d peel me, just inside the door.
     “Wait a second,” you’d say, and return with oil. Or, “Come in here,” you’d say and I’d find you on your tiptoes, elbows locked, face close to the mirror.
     In those sweet days, afloat they seem but now afloat means something else, not a figment raft in your apartment, but a current and a tide of the real ocean that makes this an island and me the land-locked inmate. So why shouldn’t I try to raise you, phantom or not, what difference can it make here? I comb the quiet air for the errant beam you travel on, as if I could feel or taste your frequency. Or have I got it all wrong? I know I do. Isn’t that what you’ve told me?

You can read an interview — Dennis Phillips in conversation
with Sheila Murphy — in this issue of Jacket.

Dennis Phillips

Dennis Phillips

Dennis Phillips is the author of nine books of poetry, the most recent being Sand (Green Integer, 2002). His first novel, Hope, came out from Green Integer in November 2007, which is also preparing his Selected Poems. Phillips is a Professor in Humanities and Design Research department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He is also a Senior Lecturer in the Otis MFA Writing Program. Phillips co-edited the poetry section of the New Review of Literature, was a founding editor of Littoral Books, the first Book Review Editor of Sulfur and the L.A. Weekly’s first poetry editor, as well a past Director of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center.

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