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.
Copyright © 2019 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 12, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.