August 2005

Gena Anderson


Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips

There is something about the summer months of the year that appeal to children. I think it may be the lure of freedom from school combined with the kind of recklessness that only children, with their disregard of mortality, can appreciate. Chattahoochee, a collection of poems by Patrick Phillips, captures this feeling perfectly. The poems mimic the feeling of summer and it’s specific implications in a child’s life -- fun and reckless -- but from an adult’s perspective we can see the oppressive and relentless heat as more dangerous than anything. Just like the title poem indicates, there is much more lying beneath the surface of the lake than you might think:

remains of another life --
a mussel-crusted fence post,
a mailbox orange with rust,
the limb of a pine where a tire once hung,

turning all afternoon on the breeze.
my rod bends towards breaking,
then straightens at the fish darts free
through the sunken junkyard

What lies beneath Phillip’s stories of childhood is a more sinister picture, incorporating religion and myth into how one child sees his family and the world around him. The language of the poems fluctuates between straightforward and stylized, depending on the mood and subject matter of the poem. At times, the gentle phrasing of the poems belies the harshness of the subject matter. The poems written from the child’s perspective seem to be the simplest and most effective in the book -- I particularly thought those that dealt with the relationship between two brothers and their stern father were extremely affecting. The slant on the relationship between brothers was biblical, like Cain and Abel, opposite personalities and a birth-order dynamic that many siblings probably experience, as in the poem "My Lovely Assistant":

What made us who we are,
one crazy, fearless -- one always afraid?
I stood by the ping-pong table
in our mother’s only sparkly dress,
playing the role of Patricia, Lovely Assistant

because he was bigger than me,
and a master of headlock,
and threatened, with his breath of snot
and bubble gum and cigarettes,
a vicious wedgy if I didn’t.

This family dynamic is in almost every poem -- the threatening father, reckless brother and the mother who only exists through them. The cruelty of the father made a startling contrast to the otherwise idyllic childhood scenes described. Like family, the presence of nature is another binding theme between poems, whether literal as in the case of the linked series of poems "Blue Ridge Bestiary," or metaphorical, as in the repeating presence and importance of the lake. What is interesting is that both nature and family are alike in their deceptive surface qualities -- we might not want to face what lies beneath.

Though Chattahoochee seems to contain much sadness, there is a definite humor to some of the poems which lightens their overall somber tone. I got the sense that Phillips was whistling in the dark -- keeping difficult memories carefully distanced through the scope of time and history, remembering the vestiges of true childhood along with the sadness of having to grow up too fast. When you are a child, the summer seems so vast and full of possibility but adulthood shows you just how quickly each year goes by.

Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips
University of Arkansas Press
ISBN: 1557287759
67 pages