Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Emilia Phillips






            Certain desires? I ate them
            the way the viable twin opens a little mouth
            in its thigh, just below the hip, to swallow

            its cell-shadow. One day, a restless itch.
            Like a flea bite or tickle of a stray hair.
            It’s not unlike a tree healing

            around shrapnel. Another stitch
            has wriggled out of my cheek, four years after
            the surgery that made me

            look like me again. In my cursive,
            lovely and lonely look exactly
            the same. I have only just noticed.

            At the bar before the elevator
            before the room with clean
            sheets, should I write you a note that reads,

                                                you look so lovely
            you might read it as    you look so lonely
            but I am here—finally—

            with you—finally—in a man’s suit
            made for a woman’s body.  Last night, he painted my toes
            so red they look black.

            But this morning? I look down and startle to see
            someone else standing
            where I’m standing still.



            Mr. Bolton, the girls’ health teacher, gave us some advice about what to do
            when we got into an inevitable argument with our future

            husbands. Lift up your shirts, girls,
            and flash him your boobs. Apparently, that was the tactic

            of Mrs. Bolton,
            my geometry teacher, who, earlier that year, had interrupted a lesson on triangles

            to turn on the news. We watched the planes crash
            again and again on a loop, and I couldn’t help

            but want to calculate the surface area of all that steel and glass
            before it crumbled. Fall was sex and spring was physical

            education, and some of the girls told Bolton
            they were on their periods

            every day, every single one, so they wouldn’t have to
            do laps around the track. But I did them always, often

            alone, while the others watched from the bleachers,
            braiding each other’s hair or doing homework. I didn’t want

            him to know when it was or wasn’t. I didn’t want him to know anything
            about my body, but he measured our waists

            and weighed us and mock-whispered a secret—
            Bench presses will make your breasts more firm.

            He made us read Song of Solomon to learn
            about intercourse, and stuck yellow happy faces to our chests

            when we played an extra rough game of dodge
            ball. He loved his whistle, and stroked it like a pet hermit crab. I refused to undress

            in the locker room in front
            of the other girls, even though someone called me

            a prude, and I averted my eyes whenever a girl lifted her
            t-shirt above her head or slipped her Umbros. I was afraid

            of what I might find there,
            especially desire. And so I shimmied into my skirt

            and buttoned my oxford as slowly as I possibly could,
            listening to the others

            laugh in their single voice
            from inside the locked stall I chose.



            and when she asked my name I gave her dawn too. I don’t know why, except I’m often
            nervous as light at the bottom of a swimming pool—the deep end

            where I once dived for a diamond
            that turned out to be just a piece of broken bottle, a hard

            lemonade. I wanted to be Dawn because I have never felt so full
            of light before. Or birds singing. I often catch myself holding

            my breath while doing the most ordinary things like quartering
            a lemon or tying a red scarf around my throat as if I must

            costume my fear of strangulation, by which I mean my fear of a man’s hands exercising

            their strength. A thumb makes a perfect
            bruise, don’t you think? I wonder, is patience a concept

            available to immortals, or is it their tariff? I miss the world

            personified—the anemoi in their four positions, wringing out their lungs
            like oranges, which I must eat in abundance in the winter to save my brain from nibbling

            the black hook. Once I had a job to which I drove an hour
            into the sun. And, then, into the sun home. Since then I’ve had one rule:

            head west in the morning, east in the evening. Before dawn
            this morning, voices awakened me—a woman’s accusations, a man’s defense.


            Before Dawn, I had another name. The body, being made

            of flesh, absorbs sound, which is why my heart will give up one day. But here it is: still
            itself to death. For the reason all violence is committed, I guess—

            To feel alive. Or just to feel.


Photograph of Emilia Phillips by Tracy Tanner.

Emilia Phillips (she/her/hers) is the author of three poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Empty Clip (2018), and four chapbooks, including Hemlock (Diode Editions, 2019). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an assistant professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. More from this author →