Patrick Phillips

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 the news my friend died
reached me in a cabin on a hillside,
where a stranger whispered
through a moth-flecked screen,
then stayed with me
as 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 I was showered, shaved
and half-way 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 have 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.

Patrick Phillips
What Happens first appeared in New England Review, 27:3, 2006 and on the website Poetry Daily.