Three Poems by Matthew Phillips

The City With Two Names

"Bitter Days" by W. Jack Savage
“Bitter Days” by W. Jack Savage

[1] The map tells you to call this place Ho Chi Minh City. The people—their half-smiles and bright open eyes and staccato rhythms—tell you it is okay, preferred even, perhaps, maybe, to call it Saigon. [2] This is a city with two names. One name taken, the other given. [3] Can a name be refused? [4] You plunge into a cloud of motor scooters; tiny buzzing insects steered by people who give you a thumbs up or smile at your fear. [5] Inside the museum, you read a placard that says the white devil did this… and this… and this. [5b] Who is the white devil? You. You are the white devil. You dropped the Agent Orange. It was you. You maimed the children, twisted limbs against their own existence. You, white devil, ordered the bombs, the bullets, the death. [6] You, white devil, know a man who knows a man who shot a Viet Cong soldier to death. You know a man who shakes when gunfire erupts on television. [7] In the city of two names, you met a man who hid inside the Cu Chi tunnels, who lived there for five years. This man lifts a sleeve, shows you how half his shoulder is gone, phantom flesh, shot through by another white devil. [7b] He says the helicopter circled, tilted, lifted into the sky and a sound came at him like chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk. [7c] The man––funny, kind, accommodating––tells you he lived in darkness for five years, made land mines from aluminum soda cans, slept beside rats and his own thick fear, surfaced under cover of night; the man’s father—one day on Saigon’s tree-lined streets—forced him to make a choice, said you either choose to go with the Americans, or you choose to go with Ho Chi Minh. It is up to you. [8] In the city with two names, outside the museum, you stare at a green, hulking tank and tell yourself a placard is just a placard. I could make a placard, you think, it’s easy. [9] What else is easy? [10] It is easy, you think, to become a devil. You can do it on a placard, or for real. [11] It is okay, preferred even, perhaps, maybe not to become a devil. [12] You have never lived in darkness or shaken when gunfire erupts on television or told a true story about how your buddy shot a man to death to save your life. [12b] In other words, you have no reason to become a white devil, but every reason to fear becoming one. [13] You march through crowded streets, plunge chopsticks into your mouth, negotiate prices, tap your pocket every few minutes to check for your passport. [14] In the sticky air of night, on the guest house balcony, you sip beer and listen to horns echoing below like whale songs, smell the salty broth of soup simmering in the narrow lanes, and watch headlights pivot against a Banh Mi stand (where an old woman layers cucumber, cheese and egg inside a French roll). [15] The map tells you to call this place Ho Chi Minh City. But it is okay, preferred even, perhaps, maybe, to call it Saigon.


Hometown Roads

…………………………..High Desert, 2014

Heat-washed pavement unravels
a bottled, landscape melody, folky
percussion through the too-bald tires.
Sawtooth horizons, yellow haze
rises along the eye-limits,
wind-bent stoplights flash rhythms––
green, yellow, red. A scaly lizard scampers
somewhere, brushing indecipherable hieroglyphics
into pastel game trails. Here I am––back again
tapping my escape song against
a vinyl armrest, all the storefronts
the same. It’s one more 12-pack and breathless heave
into starlight, a deep-hued darkness lingers over
these ridges, an omen. Turn back. I tell myself
I will. But this road, I’ve memorized
each groove. I’d be tapping beats
until a distant drawbridge. It’d wheel
onto melodious highway––out and about.
Or, it’d pendulum back like a carousel does,
slinging arcs into yesterday, a metronome
holding time for all those hometown legends, once
-loved clichés like me on endless, circular repeat.


Blowing Off Steam

Late shift in an ironworkers’ bar,
past midnight on Thursday—
Bad Company on the jukebox
Gotcha guitar burns
alcohol-red ears,
wobbles floppy chins.
The long-hair with ink bricks etched
on his skin
lazes heavy in a corner
booth, big as a house
on a cul-de-sac.
I shake Beefeater, eyeball brass knuckles
near the microwave.
Across the bar,
he rises, unfolds mason limbs
& stumbles
through his own darkness. I sense
seventeen stone of madness,
muscles on the twitch.
I sense forty-&-some-odd
years unraveling
behind blank-slate eyes,
a heartbeat like a gong.
It pours from him,
every hot breath
a wound.
He peels napkins
from a pile, stems a bloody trickle
below his nose. The bleeding won’t stop—
more white napkins
soaked red, crushed
polyps on the bar, damp roses unfurling.
Ten fist-crushed flowers, deeply red
with flecked white edges,
bloom between us.
I dig teeth
into my lip, overcome with each tick
of a time-clock, the metronome
of years pulsing blood from his heart—
how it pushes
through his head & out his nose.

Matt Phillips
Matt Phillips

Matt Phillips is studying for his MFA at the University of Texas-El Paso. His noir novel, Redbone, was published in 2015 by Number Thirteen Press. His poems and stories have appeared in Gutter Eloquence, Camel Saloon, Apeiron Review, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Pulp Metal Magazine.

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