Collected Poems of John Holmes
Holmes, John A., Jr.
The phoenix promise
The phoenix promise
An old man dying, who had seen the phoenix burn
A long time past. almost a hundred years ago,
Mumbled his memories to me, for I was young.
I shall not live to see the phoenix flame again,"
The old man said. "Body is nothing, and is all:
Time, being patient to discover where and how,
In joints of flesh and mind to shrivel and corrupt,
Taught me at last there are no gods of any kind.
Though unforgiven for it, girls I loved grew old.
A long time living I believed this could not be,
Thinking I travelled toward the miracle again.
Body is nothing more or less; reflects a warmth;
Grows colder and deceives us; ugly, and brings despair;
Body is nothing, and is all, and dies too soon."
I thought he had forgotten much of all he learned
Upon whose head the treasures of that light were poured.
Body, I thought: only a thing to lift the hat to
Gravely when its funeral meets you down the street;
Something to feed; or fight; or put the arms around;
Nothing to thrust and brace against the wind of time-
Except, I said, the mortal body is poised in time,
Balanced in peril between the will-be and the now;
Except that skin is eloquent, the bones are proud,
And mind rejoices in the danger body tells;
Except that fingers touch, eyes meet, and light is there.
Nothing: except that body, poised in time and space,
Remembers the pure right angle of itself to earth,
And spine to wooden floor, to shadow's lapse of light.
Nothing: except it walks past towers and trees, through doors,
And flings itself upon the horizontal bed,
And lies there watching slants of sun that rest
Golden upon the parallels of level rugs.
Body can hear then music from adjacent rooms
Lifting its own geometry in empty space.
Body can think, and thinks of lovers it has had;
Memory traces tangents back through time and space
To touch their bodies, till the blood once more confirms
The swift and accurate passion of that draughtsmanship.
Body imagines how the drift of stars goes by
Over the earth that bears the house and four walls up,
And bears up under back and under thighs with bed.
Body, I thought, believes itself; body believes
The phoenix promise carried hot along the blood.
The old man spoke again, but not for me to hear,
A sound of history, half-legend and no names.
The slow voice bent my mind beneath a gusty thought.
It fanned the flame in me that made the legend true,
Lit in my eyes that blinding flash, that ashy nest,
That radiant bird uprising on new wings of fire.
And though the old man miss his hoped-for hundred years,
I think that, being young, I shall not ever die.
My century begins to blaze as if the sun
With sudden torches had achieved the death of death.