The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Michael Lee Phillips

At Trona


Stand on the hill at night
And watch lights in the houses below
Suffocate from the lives that forgot to breathe in.
Walk the dark streets and find
Cars abandoned everywhere without lovers.
This is the town
Known as the last one on the map
The one you wouldn’t stop at with a name you can’t remember.
Listen: all the lives in this town have been cut out of their bodies,
And shadows filled with noise
Have moved into the empty spaces.
It’s a town that’s been burning for years, the houses turning
One by one into charcoal husks
Where the families inside live out their time in black and white
Because color is extra every month
And who can afford it? Every front yard has a stalled 4 x 4 vehicle
With potash and borax and soda ash caked
An inch thick on the windshield, and the high rise jack
And spare tire stolen before the first payment.
Blessings in this town are counted like taxes and paid every day
In righteous sequence for the right to live on the shores
Of a lake that dried up ages ago leaving a fortune
Buried in the mud for the wealthy to take.
The town is older than you, older than me, older than anyone
You know who’s living or dead, except the Fallen One,
Who founded the town in the time of his falling
And called it Heaven in honor of the town of his birth.
Don’t go there. You won’t like it.
The sun will rise every day and hunt you down one by one.



Michael Lee Phillips



Non-existence, I once said to a fellow traveler, is not
A viable subject position, and he said, Buddy you got that
Right. Then the train started to slow down and we both looked
Out the window believing that we should soon get our first
Glimpse of Dresden. My fellow traveler, Nakamura, was from Japan,
A graduate student studying American Literature at UCLA,
Whose parents, he told me, had survived Nagasaki and still
Believed that their Emperor, Hirohito, was a god. But they are
Old, he said, what can you do? It had been nearly forty years
Since the infamous firebombing of Dresden, yet the rubble
Seemed endless. Our compartment swayed gently side to side
While the wheels screeched and cried out against the brakes.
I lowered the window and leaned out into the misting and gray air.
It was . . . I can see myself, me, leaning out the window, wearing
Faded Levi’s that I would later sell for a good price in Leningrad,
Me, young, yes, that young, already writing this, consciously
Aware that I have to write this someday, but not these words.
The rubble! Christ! It went on and on, a tedium of organized debris
Created by Trummerfrauen, the rubble women – pile after
Long pile – some of it, I would read years later, catalogued
And cleaned. So here’s what I did, me, the tourist leaning
Out the window. I seized the cold rubble with my hands
And lifted it, piece by piece, into my mind, reconstructing
The buildings . . . except that, no, I couldn’t do it. No.
Baroque was beyond my imagination. So I waited. I stood
At the window and watched as the latest citizens of the rubble
Went about their lives. At the station Nakamura mentioned
Slaughterhouse-Five and we stowed our backpacks and followed
A grooved trail over the first block-long hump of rubble.
The Elbe, Nakamura said, and he smiled and pointed ahead
And the two of us pushed through crowds of faces that wouldn’t
Look at us until we had passed, that stared and said nothing
Whenever Nakamura spoke the words, Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse.
I remember the humidity and how the unmoving, thick air
Embalmed us. I remember all the shops being closed and
The empty shelves, rows upon rows, if anyone bothered to look.
I remember the endless drone a city makes when no one remembers
How the future should sound. I remember cemeteries lining
The streets where they buried words that might say tomorrow.
I remember the aged Trummerfrau selling her autobiography
On the street corner, a thin book, poorly printed, which Nakamura
Bought with three US dollars and read out loud on the train,
Translating as he did so. How her husband beat her when
She was young then joined the army and disappeared forever.
How death sounds when it flies in machines and loves the killing.
How to find what you need to stay alive and how to steal it
When you find it. How to eat what is never eaten. How to eat
Less of what is never eaten. How to eat nothing. How to lift a stone
From the debris to place it onto a neat pile of rubble and hope
For bread. How to lift a thousand stones from the debris
To place them onto neat piles of rubble and hope to forget.
How to lose count of the stones and the years it takes
To lift them from the debris to place them onto neat piles
Of rubble and hope for nothing. How to fill those years
Pleasing men who will return with bodies that are missing
The parts necessary for love, who carry wounds that will stain
The sheets for all time – men who destroyed it all, who have
Nothing to give and will demand it all back, everything, again.




MICHAEL LEE PHILLIPS was born in Trona, California. He graduated from Fresno State College and drifted through a short newspaper career and work in technical writing before becoming a teacher. He is retired and currently living and writing in southern California.



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