Why the word "phoenix"? I haven't been pondering the myth of the phoenix. I haven't visited Phoenix, Arizona, for at least ten years, and I have no plans to travel to that fair city. It has been quite some time since I heard Glen Campbell sing "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."
Nor do I recall seeing the word "phoenix" in anything I have read recently. Yet, might my reading choices account for the unexpected appearance of "out into the phoenix world" in the dead of night? At the beginning of the week I read Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses." The entire poem is wonderful, but these four lines have been preoccupying me:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses," lines 18-21, in Poems (1842).
I have been thinking in particular about the lovely line "I am a part of all that I have met." Why didn't Tennyson write instead: "All that I have met is a part of me"? This would seem to be more "logical." Thus, one might say: "I have been to [insert name of place] only once, but it will always be a part of me." On the other hand, "Ulysses" is a monologue by Ulysses, who is not known for his humility. The line is immediately preceded by these two lines: "And drunk delight of battle with my peers,/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy." Yes, Ulysses did leave "a part" of himself on "the ringing plains of windy Troy," didn't he? And, thanks to Homer, he haunts the place to this day. But I do not wish to explicate the line to death. Needless to say, I defer to Tennyson: the line is perfect as it is.
Did my reading of "Ulysses" give subconscious birth to "out into the phoenix world"? There is a phoenix-like element of rebirth or regeneration in the poem: in the end, Ulysses decides to embark on yet another journey in pursuit of a world that for ever "gleams" in the distance: "Come, my friends./'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." It is worth noting that the image of an unreachable "gleam" in the distance reappears in "Merlin and the Gleam," a poem written by Tennyson near the end of his life. The poem concludes with these lines:
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.
Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).
But I do not wish to overreach: I've never been fond of analyzing dreams for hidden psychological messages, nor do I wish to read too much into riddling phrases that appear from out of the realm of sleep. Still, if a message arrives from a mysterious place, we ought not to reject it out of hand.
Richard Kaiser (1868-1941), "Landscape (Werratal)" (1939)
Autumn has been making its presence felt in gentle increments since mid-August. It begins with a slight change in the angle of the light, which also takes on a deeper tinge of yellow. This is accompanied by the lengthening tree shadows, which move across the streets and paths earlier and earlier in the day.
Recently, while I was out on my daily walk, autumn moved a few steps closer: the afternoon was sunny, but there was a slight chill in the breeze that came from the west -- a just perceptible undercurrent in the stream of air. As I strolled north in the sunlight, the left side of my body was in balmy August, while the right side was in cold October.
"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed. I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions. I have seen those things which also pass -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life. Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world. Too much said? Better to walk on . . ."
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4. The ellipses appear in the original text. The book was published in France in 1979 under the title Paysages avec Figures Absentes.
Philippe Jaccottet is now 91 years old. He was born in Moudon, Switzerland, but he has lived in the town of Grignan in the Rhône-Alpes region of France since 1953. The prose passage quoted above is characteristic of the quiet, ruminative, and lovingly attentive beauty of Jaccottet's prose and poetry. Earlier this week, prior to the appearance of "out into the phoenix world," I read the following poem by Jaccottet, which is part of a sequence titled "To Henry Purcell":
Imagine a comet
returning centuries hence
from the kingdom of the dead,
crossing our century tonight
and sowing the same seeds . . .
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon (translator), Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998). The poem is untitled. The ellipses appear in the original text.
A comet "returning centuries hence/from the kingdom of the dead" perhaps has something in common with the phoenix, which, according to some traditions, lives 500 years, its successor then arising from its ashes. Might this be the source of "the phoenix world" of my dream remnant? There is no way of knowing. The phrase is probably nothing more than a non sequitur released from the fortune cookie of the mind.
Emanuel Baschny (1876-1932), "Village in the Sun" (1910)
At this time of year our eyes are drawn to the leaves. On a September afternoon, towards sunset, you look up at a tree and notice that the leaves of a single spray or bough have turned yellow, orange, or red. There they are, set against a backdrop of deep green. There is no doubt a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. There always is. I prefer to remain ignorant.
At the moment, a meadow that I pass by on my daily walk is full of pink-purple and purple-white sweet peas. In this part of the world, they usually bloom in July and August, and then dry out before autumn arrives. Their appearance now may be due to a spell of wet weather we had a few weeks ago. Whatever the reason, it is delightful to see them fluttering in the slanting, butter-yellow sunlight.
Live thy Life,
Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
Then; and then
All his leaves
Fallen at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough,
Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).
The oak's yearly transitions from "living gold" to "summer-rich" green to "soberer-hued gold" to emptiness do not proceed in lockstep. Red leaves and blossoming sweet peas exist side-by-side. The World's beauty is in its fragments, and in their juxtapositions, ever-changing. "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice." (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.") Or: "the half colors of quarter-things." (Wallace Stevens, "The Motive for Metaphor.") We do not live in an all-or-nothing World. For which we should be grateful.
We live in a World of constant change. But that change takes place within a cycle of renewal and recurrence. With the promise of an end for all that is mortal, of course. There's no getting around that. But here is something to consider: "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).
Richard Kaiser, "Landscape in Oberbayern" (1939)
What, then, of "out into the phoenix world"? If I ever receive messages from other realms, I do not expect them to arrive in words. Thus, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I was only talking to myself. I suspect that I needed to give myself advice: "Whatever you are looking for is out there, not in here."
Weight of stones, of thoughts
Dreams and mountains
are not evenly balanced
We inhabit yet another world
Perhaps the one between
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures, page 156. The poem is untitled. It is immediately followed by this prose passage:
"This is how I once tried to capture in a poem the feeling that there must be two measures, two orders of measure; because what we experience -- pain or joy -- in a lifetime, or even in a brief moment, we clearly see as unrelated to the millions, the billions of years or miles of science. . . . This feeling of somehow escaping from, or having some essential inner resistance to what can be quantified, could perhaps be the beginning of a hope.
"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience: the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being. But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."
Philippe Jaccottet, Ibid, pages 156-157. The italics appear in the original text.
Emanuel Baschny, "Before a Thunderstorm" (1913)