Blackbox manifold

Issue 14: Tom Phillips

Nearly at the frontier

Almost impossible not to think of it

with military signage still in place,

yet here we are, the bus pulled up

by busy smallholders’ stalls,

headscarfed women laughing.

Not so far from watchtowers

and mass grave sites,

witnesses still being called

to austere and stifling courtrooms,

scar tissue terrains give way

to towns whose plain hope shows –

and only last night outside a bar

weren’t we greeted by all those passers-by?

We’ll soon be off down widened roads,

through newly coppiced woodland,

carrying on towards the frontier’s

persistent machinery –

but for now the driver’s having a smoke,

and with questions unresolved

or best avoided, we are in the sun.


In Druzbha

Stepping out of the lift,

I’m to cross your threshold

before we shake hands.

So custom has it, and here

I am, encumbered with rucksack,

unsure of where to stow

my shoes, but ushered in

to this different place, your home –

my first mistake to think

it will matter how well I know

these ins and outs of etiquette.

Breeze through an open balcony door,

this clement September ...

It’s not so long since chance

connections firmed into

your open invitation.

Already, beyond apartment blocks,

roseate fireworks promise I’ll return:

like a statue’s stroked hand,

a witnessed wedding acts as guarantee.

And you just back from your daughter’s.

So, yes, six storeys up, I’m floored

by language and trust, in this district

whose name you can’t precisely translate.

‘Friendship’, ‘companionship’, ‘acquaintanceship’:

you try each one but none will do –

though I might hazard a guess

as to where we are: figures emerging

as if from heat-haze into proximity

on what’s now becoming common ground.


Regret’s occasion

These neat little espressos

he said he wasn’t sure he could make

with the closed-up café’s machine

are the precise and distilled opposite

of expansive summer light

across meadows unbroken until

the river marking the border.

As usual, there’s too much

I want to say or dare

when I can’t translate

a solitary look across the table.

Preventing the petrol tang

in this pit-stop forecourt

becoming regret’s occasion

is my concern: you stack

our empty paper cups

while he relocks the café door.


A generous landscape divulges

itself, nothing more, despite

what I might think to decipher

from forested gorges, sun patterns

across tilted pastures, the scent

of plants in a clearing.

While we’re talking of this and that,

you’re giving away details

of a life I’ve hardly known –

and me, I’m wandering

into a wood which, if luck lasts,

will have been my own invention.


Brief conversation in the kitchen

It’s as if I’ve been here before,

sitting on this chair beneath

your painting of red peppers.

It’s as if I’m meeting again

people I knew in some other life –

as if you could ask me to pass

a particular plate or fork

and, without so much as a thought,

I’d reach for the drawer

where it’s always been kept.

It’s one way to explain

this atmosphere, this ease –

and, of course, we’ve spoken

via email, and I’ve seen on Skype

your painting in this kitchen

where friends, not guests, are entertained.

It’s only as you make to leave,

to cycle across the city,

it’s as if I’m doing a disservice.

There was no other life,

nothing pre-ordained.

It’s as if I’ve forgotten the word

in my own language – although,

as we’re saying our goodbyes,

I’m not so sure it ever had one.

Tom Phillips is a freelance writer living in Bristol, UK. His poetry has been published in a wide variety of magazines, in two chapbooks and in the full-length collection Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012). Recent work also includes the play Coastal Defences (Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, 2014) and the children’s story Nicholas – The Stolen Reindeer (x-ovation, 2014). He works on translation and cultural exchange projects with writers and artists in SE Europe and is co-founder of Anglo-Bulgarian online collaboration Colourful Star.