Monday, November 16, 2009

About the Phoenix

by James Merrill
But in the end one tires of the high-flown. 
If it were simply a matter of life or death 
We should by now welcome the darkening room, 
Wrinkling of linen, window at last violet, 
The rosy body lax in a chair of words, 
And then the appearance of unsuspected lights. 
We should walk wonderingly into that other world 
With its red signs pulsing and long lit lanes. 
But often at nightfall, ambiguous 
As the city itself, a giant jeweled bird 
Comes cawing to the sill, dispersing thought 
Like a birdbath, and with such final barbarity 
As to wear thin at once terror and novelty. 
So that a sumptuous monotony 
Sets in, a pendulum of amethysts 
In the shape of a bird, keyed up for ever fiercer 
Flights between ardor and ashes, back and forth; 
Caught in whose talons any proof of grace, 
Even your face, particularly your face 
Fades, featureless in flame, or wan, a fading 
Tintype of some cooling love, according 
To the creature’s whim. And in the end, despite 
Its pyrotechnic curiosity, the process 
Palls. One night 
Your body winces grayly from its chair, 
Embarks, a tearful child, to rest 
On the dark breast of the fulfilled past. 
The first sleep here is the sleep fraught 
As never before with densities, plume, oak, 
Black water, a blind flapping. And you wake 
Unburdened, look about for friends—but O 
Could not even the underworld forego 
The publishing of omens, naively? 
Nothing requires you to make sense of them 
And yet you shiver from the dim clay shore, 
Gazing. There in the lake, four rows of stilts 
Rise, a first trace of culture, shy at dawn 
Though blackened as if forces long confined 
Had smouldered and blazed forth. In the museum 
You draw back lest the relics of those days 
—A battered egg cup and a boat with feet— 
Have lost their glamour. They have not. The guide 
Fairly exudes his tale of godless hordes 
Sweeping like clockwork over Switzerland, 
Till what had been your very blood ticks out 
Voluptuous homilies. Ah, how well one might, 
If it were less than a matter of life or death, 
Traffic in strong prescriptions, “live” and “die”! 
But couldn’t the point about the phoenix 
Be not agony or resurrection, rather 
A mortal lull that followed either, 
During which flames expired as they should, 
And dawn, discovering ashes not yet stirred, 
Buildings in rain, but set on rock, 
Beggar and sparrow entertaining one another, 
Showed me your face, for that moment neither 
Alive nor dead, but turned in sleep 
Away from whatever waited to be endured?

(James Merrill, “About the Phoenix” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Merrill.) 

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