Terra Nullius

The Romans used the term for land
owned by no one. Easy for conquerors,
and a weapon on its own. Our old
house sat on a little property over
which a creek and road ran parallel,
though the pavement and water were not
ours. The last owner once threw a sack
of kittens into the creek—he couldn’t
afford to feed them or have the mother
spayed. Hearing the story from a neighbor,
I thought of Cicero’s sack in the Tiber,
sewn up as punishment for a felon and stuffed
with a pitbull, monkey, cock, and asp; I thought
of one left a while in the river, never
collected, abandoned to drift down-
stream for days. The bodies distend,
swell, each becoming more
water and, in this, become less sovereign
to itself. A fisherman finds the sack
in the reeds and wades in to heave it
onto shore, buries the man in one
grave and the animals in another. And if he owns
the land into which they were interred,
does he own their lives? Their deaths?
And to whom is it left after the fisherman’s
end? Will cannot be composed, only suffered.

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry appears in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. She serves as the prose editor of 32 Poems, on staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and as the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.


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  1. Pingback: Table of Contents, Issue Five | Matter

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