Who Is Less Than a Vapor?

Rowan Ricardo Phillips - 1974-
      —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.

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.

Washington Mews

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.

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Batter my heart, three person'd God (Holy Sonnet 14)

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.