Patrick Phillips, “What Happens”

What Happens


What happens never happens on its own.
The future and the past collide.

I’ve known a radio to go on playing
the song that it was playing

just before my father’s Pontiac began to slide—
the past so stubbornly persistent

even Jimi Hendrix would not stop wailing
just because my face was broken

and the rain was blowing
through what had been a windshield—

spot-lit figures clutching their knees
and sobbing in the grass

as Jimi shrieked and shrieked out of the past,
until finally I found the knob

I’d cranked in my euphoria, just before
the gods let loose their wrath.


And sometimes what happens
must happen more than once,

as when my friend died and the news
reached me in a cabin on a hillside,

where I presided over row
after row of sleeping campers.

The head counselor had whispered
through a moth-flecked screen,

then stood beside the stump
where I sat smoking and crying

and talking about what happened
until there was nothing left but sleep.

But by the time I was awakened
I’d forgotten, and for an hour

he was alive somewhere.
And I was showered, shaved,

and halfway down the mountain
when a twig snapped, and he died.

And sometimes what happens
doesn’t even happen,

like when it was time
for my wife to push

and she pushed so hard
the screen flatlined.

So hard the heart stopped
and the whole room began

to flash and beep, like on TV.
Nurses streamed through doors

and in an instant we were childless.
We wandered through our days.

The doctors worked and worked
and nothing happened.

And it was then I knew for sure
that nothing cares for us.

And I was changed.
And I have never been the same

though I’ve learned
to pretend I do not know

what can happen and un-happen
in no more time than it would take

an angel or a devil to descend into my wife,
and pass through her into my son,

who was miraculously born into this world,
where everywhere and always

hearts are stopping for no reason.
and for no reason, starting up again.


i found this poem very powerful, especially in the first section. i was pulled in by the lines “even Jimi Hendrix would not stop wailing / just because my face was broken”. the entire poem has a certain bluntness about it, but i think this line is particularly striking because of the idea of a broken face. this general, ambiguous description is far more effective and jarring than pinpointing a particular facial injury, and becomes all the more effective when the catastrophe of the crash is paired with the persistence of the radio in spite of the destruction and trauma. the rest of the poem adds to the tone set in the first section, and by the end, it becomes a very succesful reflection on the transcience of life and also of death. one aspect that somewhat distracted me however, was the pairing of the two lines together. i can understand how this technique is used to lend rhythm to the poem, but i can’t decide whether or not it would have been better without this sort of sing-songy rhthym. as is, i think it helps the flow, and makes certain lines and elements of the narrative stick out, however, i can’t help but think that for the subject matter, it would be much more dramatic without this division. but maybe the only reason it’s dramatic at all is because of this juxtaposition?

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