Do not imagine you can abdicate


If the sea could dream, and if the sea   
were dreaming now, the dream
would be the usual one: Of the Flesh.   
The letter written in the dream would go   
something like: Forgive me—love, Blue.


    I. The Viewing (A Chorus)

O what, then, did he look like?
                                                   He had a good body.

And how came you to know this?
                                                 His body was naked.

Say the sound of his body.
                                             His body was quiet.

Say again—quiet?
                            He was sleeping.

You are sure of this? Sleeping?
                                                   Inside it, yes. Inside it.


    II. Pavilion

Sometimes, a breeze: a canvas   
flap will rise and, inside,   
someone stirs; a bird? a flower?

One is thinking Should there be
thirst, I have only to reach   
for the swollen bag of skin

beside me, I have only to touch
my mouth that is meant for a flower   
to it, and drink.

One is for now certain he is
one of those poems that stop only;   
they do not end.

One says without actually saying it
I am sometimes a book of such poems,   
I am other times a flower and lovely

pressed like so among them, but   
always they forget me.   
I miss my name.

They are all of them heat-
weary, anxious for evening as for   
some beautiful to the bone

messenger to come. They will open   
again for him. His hands are good.   
His message is a flower.


    III. The Tasting (A Chorus)

O what, then, did he taste like?
                                                    He tasted of sorrow.

And how came you to know this?
                                                 My tongue still remembers.

Say the taste that is sorrow.
                                                Game, fallen unfairly.

And yet, you still tasted?
                                           Still, I tasted.

Did you say to him something?
                                                I could not speak, for hunger.


    IV. Interior

And now,
the candle blooms gorgeously away   
from his hand—

and the light has made   
blameless all over
the body of him (mystery,

mystery), twelvefold   
shining, by grace of twelve   
mirrors the moth can’t stop

attending. Singly, in no order,   
it flutters against, beats   
the glass of each one,

as someone elsewhere   
is maybe beating upon   
a strange door now,

somebody knocks   
and knocks at a new   
country, of which

nothing is understood—
no danger occurs   
to him, though

danger could be any   
of the unusually wild   

that, either side of the road,   
When he slows, bends down and

closer, to see or
to take one—it is as if
he knows something to tell it.


    V. The Dreaming (A Chorus)

O what, then, did it feel like?
                                                   I dreamed of an arrow.

And how came you to know him?
                                                I dreamed he was wanting.

Say the dream of him wanting.
                                                A swan, a wing folding.

Why do you weep now?
                                  I remember.

Tell what else you remember.
                                              The swan was mutilated.



And I came to where was nothing but drowning   
and more drowning, and saw to where the sea—
besides flesh—was, as well, littered with boats,
how each was blue but trimmed with white, to each   
a name I didn’t know and then, recalling,   
did. And ignoring the flesh that, burning, gives   
more stink than heat, I dragged what boats I could   
to the shore and piled them severally in a tree-
less space, and lit a fire that didn’t take
at first—the wood was wet—and then, helped by   
the wind, became a blaze so high the sea   
itself, along with the bodies in it, seemed   
to burn. I watched as each boat fell to flame:
Vincent and Matthew and, last, what bore your name.
Carl Phillips, “Cortège” from Cortège. Copyright © 2002 by Carl Phillips. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota,
Source: Cortège (Graywolf Press, 1995)
More Poems by Carl Phillips