"Alan the Plumber" by Patrick Phillips

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Nov. 15 2011 7:08 AM

"Alan the Plumber"

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Patrick Phillips read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Alan the plumber
and his helper, Miguel,
hit a pothole on Atlantic last Wednesday:

a nub of raw cartilage
peeking out through his septum
as he told me himself

how something—
the airbag’s explosives?
the dashboard's gray shrapnel?—
had blown the nose clear off his face,

over which the young doctors
laid a patch of wet skin
I could see they had cut from his forehead,

a few gray eyebrow hairs
sprouting through the black stitches

as, deep in a mask
of oozing and swelling,
his big watery eyes
looked into mine,
like some child on Halloween night.

What is the meaning?
Where is the message?
Why have I dragged you and poor Alan
together like this,
after all he’s been through?

There is everything we think
we know in the world.                              
And then there's this shit that just happens:

that falls from the sky,
or sprouts in our lungs, or flies up
from a windshield without warning,
the whole planet charged
with the power to open our bodies,
the way lightning lays bare
the pink, meaty striations
of heartwood, deep in a tree.

That's it. That is all
I was thinking,
or trying hard not to think,
when Alan rolled onto his back
and stared up at the drain,

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his sweet, ruined face
turning to stone
in the torch’s blue flame,

while I stood over him, saying,
as one knows one must say,
I am sorry. I'm so sorry
,

by which, we both knew,
I meant Jesus Christ. Jesus
fucking Christ, Alan, almighty.

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Patrick Phillips is the author of two books, Chattahoochee and Boy, and was a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry.  He teaches at Drew University.

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