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.)