Washington Mews

- 1974-

I won’t ever tell you how it ended.
But it ended. I was told not to act
Like it was some big dramatic moment.
She swiveled on her heels like she twirled just
The other day on a bar stool, the joy
Gone out of it now. Then she walked away.
I called out to her once. She slightly turned.
But she didn’t stop. I called out again.
And that was when, well, that’s just when
You know: You will always be what you were
On that small street at that small time, right when
She left and Pluto sudsed your throat and said,
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche
Tú la quisiste, y a veces ella también te quiso.

More by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

The Odyssey, Book 11: ll. 538-556


The soul of swift-soled Achilles hearing me
Praise his son, silvered, and then was gone,
His long strides causing him to blend, light-bent,
Into the shining, maize meadow cloudbank						
Shadowed by that one solitary tree 
It takes sixteen years for light, let alone
A soul, to cross.
		 The other dead, who thrived
Though they had died, rejoiced at seeing me
And sang, one by one, to me; and I in 
Turn said back to one after the other
That the song that soul sang was a blessing
And that I had never heard anything
Like it; which was true, but also, I must
Admit, they bored me to tears, tears that their
Surprisingly still finite knowledge took
As tears of pure joy from hearing them sing.

Only Ajax Telamoniades
Kept away, arms crossed, refusing to speak,
Dim-starred and disappearing into his rage.
All because of a simple spar of words,
A mere speech, and winning Achilles’ armor.
Athena above and those men at the ships
Decided that, not me, although it’s true 
He never stood chance. But by custom
Should have been given the matchless metal. 
How I wish I hadn’t won that contest.
How the ground closed over his head for it.
What a fool I can be. Ajax. Who knew
No equal in action but for the one
Man who surpassed him, just-fled Achilles,
So capable of happiness despite
All that happened because he washed up here,
Heaven: this implausible place for us.

Strange that Ajax is also in Heaven
Despite ending his legendary life.
In the end he’s won, but he doesn’t seem
To understand that he’s won. Poor Ajax.
Like always, I thought I had winning words
And so I said to him with unreturned gaze:
“Son of great Telamon, mighty Ajax, 
War tower, shake free of your anger.
No one else is to blame but Zeus, and look,
He is no longer here, friend. Paradise
Has found you and given you an eternal
Roof under the one tree of High Heaven.
Zeus treated us so terribly, and you,
Whom he should have loved like his strongest son,
You worst of all.
   But that is history
Now. Come, my strong brother, lord and deserved
Winner of all Achilles wore and was,
Come, be with us here; let me hear the light
Of Heaven in your voice; and let me know,
Because I love you, how you (of all men!)
Ended up in the keen of this endless berm.”
But Ajax, gift-eyed, said nothing to me
And took his seat under the rowan tree.

Death and the City

Yesterday’s newspaper becomes last week’s
Newspapers spread out like a hand-held fan
In front of the face of the apartment
Door. A dog does the Argos-thing inside,
Waiting beside O as though his body
Is but an Ithaca waiting the soul’s
Return. Neil the Super will soon come up
With the key but only in time to find
Doreen, the on-the-down-low-friend-with-perks,
There already, kneeling between the two,
Stroking the hair of both O and the dog,
Wondering who had been walking the dog.

Who Is Less Than a Vapor?

      —after Donne's "Meditation XII"

What won’t end a life if a vapor will? 
If this poem were a violent shaking of 
The air by thunder or by cannon, in 
That case the air would be condensed above 
The thickness of water, of water baked 
Into ice, almost petrified, almost 
Made stone and no wonder; no la. But that 
Which is but a vapor, and a vapor 
Not exhaled when breathed in, who would not think
Miserably then, put into the hands 
Of nature, which doesn’t only set us 
Up as a mark for others to shoot at, 
But delights itself in blowing us up 
Like glass, till it see us break, even 
From its own breath? Madness over madness
Misplaced, overestimating ourselves
Proceeding ourselves, we proceed from ourselves 
So that a self is in the plot, and we
Are not only passive, but active, too,
In this destruction contract. Doesn’t my 
Calling call for that? We have heard of death 
On these small occasions and from unearthed
Instruments: a pin, a comb, a hair yanked,
A golden vision gangrened and killed. But
Still the vapor. Still. So, if asked again, What 
Is a vapor? I couldn’t tell you. So
So insensible a thing; so near such
Nothings that reduce us to nothing. 
And yet for all their privileges, they are 
Not privileged from our misery; for they 
Are the vapors most natural to us, 
Arising in our own bodies, arising
In the clot-shine of disheveled rumor;
And those that wound nations most arise
At home. What ill air to meet in the street.
What comes for your throat like homebred vapor 
Comes for your throat as fugitive, as fox,
As soulman of any foreign state? As
Detractor, as libeler, as scornful jester
At home? For, as they babble of poisons
And of wild creatures naturally disposed
(But of course) to ruin you, ask yourself
About the flea, the viper; for the flea,
Though it may kill no one, does all the harm
It can, not so that it may live but so
That it may live as itself, shrugging through
Your blood; but the jester, whose head is full
Of vapor, draws vapor from your head, pulls
Pigeons from his pockets, blares what venom
He may have as though he were the viper,
As though he is not less than a vapor,
As though there is no virtue in power,
Having it, and not doing any harm.

Related Poems

In the Village

I

I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn't. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there's nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught
the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning
the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk,
that the world was about to end that morning
on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work
in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective.
It was no way to die, but it's also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.

II

Everybody in New York is in a sitcom.
I'm in a Latin American novel, one
in which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some
invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction,
and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,
the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction
to his deep embarrassment. Look, it's
just the old story of a heart that won't call it quits
whatever the odds, quixotic. It's just one that'll
break nobody's heart, even if the grizzled colonel
pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle
that won't make him a statue. It is the hell
of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets
trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners
trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets
of an old man's memoirs, printed stanzas.
showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets.

III

Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.

IV

The Sweet Life Café

If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.
My lust is in great health, but, if it happens
that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand,
joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen's
elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass
white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking
in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace
I have known and which death will be taking
from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place.