The Phoenix and the Tortoise




I am cold in my folded blanket,
Huddled on the ground in the moonlight.

The crickets cry in congealing frost;
Field mice run over my body;
The frost thickens and the night goes by.

North of us lies the vindictive
Foolish city asleep under its guns;
Its rodent ambitions washing out
In sewage and unwholesome dreams.
Behind the backs of drowsy sentries
The moonlight shines through frosted glass —
On the floors of innumerable
Corridors the mystic symbols
Of the bureaucrats are reversed —
Mirrorwise, as Leonardo
Kept the fever charts of one person.
Two Ptahs, two Muhammad’s coffins,
We float in the illimitable
Surgery of moonlight, isolate
From each other and the turning earth;
Motionless; frost on our faces;
Eyes by turns alive, dark in the dark.

The State is the organization
Of the evil instincts of mankind.
History is the penalty
We pay for original sin.
In the conflict of appetite
And desire, the person finally
Loses; either the technology
Of the choice of the lesser evil
Overwhelms him; or a universe
Where the stars in their courses move
To ends that justify their means
Dissolves him in its elements.
He cannot win, not on this table.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil —
The Tempter offered Christ mastery
Of the three master institutions,
Godparents of all destruction —
“Miracle, Mystery, and Authority” —
The systematization of
Appetitive choice to obtain
Desire by accumulation.

History continuously
Bleeds to death through a million secret
Wounds of trivial hunger and fear.
Its stockholders’ private disasters
Are amortized in catastrophe.

War is the health of the State? Indeed!
War is the State. All personal
Anti-institutional values
Must be burnt out of each generation.
If a massive continuum
Of personality endured
Into grandchildren, history
Would stop.

                   “As the Philosopher says,”
Man is a social animal;
That is, top dog of a slave state.
All those lucid, noble minds admired
Sparta, and well they might. Surely
It is highly questionable
If Plato’s thesis can be denied.
The Just Man is the Citizen.
Wars exist to take care of persons.
The species affords no aberrants.

Barmaid of Syria, her hair bound
In a Greek turban, her flanks
Learnedly swaying, shivering
In the shiver of castanets,
Drunk, strutting lasciviously
In the smoke filled tavern...

What nexus gathers and dissolves here
In the fortuitous unity
Of revolving night and myself?
They say that history, defining
Responsibility in terms
Of the objective continuum,
Limits, and at the same time creates,
Its participants. They further say
That rational existence is
Essentially harmonic selection.
Discarding “is,” the five terms
Are equated, the argument closed.
Cogito and Ergo and Sum play
Leapfrog — fact — process — process — fact —
Between my sleeping body and
The galaxy what Homeric
Heroes struggle for my arms?


The vast onion of the actual:
The universe, the galaxy,
The solar system, and the earth,
And life, and human life, and men’s
Relationships, and men, and each man . . .
History seeping from capsule
To capsule, from periphery
To center, and outward again . . .
The sparkling quanta of events,
The pulsing wave motion of value . . .

Marx. Kropotkin. Adams. Acton.
Spengler, Toynbee. Tarn building empires
From a few coins found in a cellar . . .
History . . . the price we pay for man’s
First disobedience . . . John of Patmos,
The philosopher of history.

This body huddled on the whirling
Earth, dipping the surface of sleep
As damsel flies sting the water’s skin
With life. What is half remembered
In the hypnogogy of time;
Ineradicable bits of tune;
Nicias in rout from Syracuse;
Scarlet Wolsey splendid on the Field
Of the Cloth of Gold; More on trial;
Abélard crying for that girl;
“More than my brother, Jonathan,
Of one soul with me,
What sin, what pollution,
Has torn our bowels asunder.”
The burnt out watch fires of Modena;
Or Phoebi claro — lover, dawn, and fear
Of treacherous death; the enervated
Musical, dim edge of sleep;
Archdeacon Stuck on McKinley
Singing, “Te Deum laudamus . . .”
In the clenching cold and the thin air;
Lawrence dying of his body,
Blue gentians burning in the dark mind;
The conflict of events and change.


Softly and singly an owl
Cries in my sleep. I awake and turn
My head, but there is only the moon
Sinking in the early dawn.
Owls do not cry over the ocean.
The night patrol planes return
Opaque against the transparent moon.
“The owl of Minerva,” says Hegel,
“Takes her flight in the evening.”
It is terrible to lie
Beside my wife’s canvas chrysalis,
Watching the imperceptible
Preparation of morning,
And think that this probably is not
The historical evening we thought;
Waking in the twilight like bemused
Drunkards; but the malignant
Dawn of the literate insect,
Dispassionate, efficient, formic.


Would it have been better to have slept
And dreamed, than to have watched night
Pass and this slow moon sink? My wife sleeps
And her dreams measure the hours
As accurately as my
Meditations in cold solitude.
I have lain awake while the moon crossed,
Dragging at the tangled ways
Of the sea and the tangled, blood filled
Veins of sleepers. I am not alone,
Caught in the turning of the seasons.
As the long beams of the setting moon
Move against the breaking day,
The suspended light pulsates
Like floating snow. Involuntary,
I may live on, sustained in the web
Of accident, never forgetting
This midnight moon that already blurs
In memory.


The light grows stronger and my lids
That were black turn red; the blood turns
To the coming sun. I sit up
And look out over the bright quiet
Sea and the blue and yellow cliffs
And the pure white tatters of fog
Dissolving on the black fir ridges.
The world is immovable
And immaculate. The argument
Has come to an end; it is morning,
And in the isolating morning
The problem hangs suspended, lucid
In a crystal cabinet of air
And angels where only bird song wakes.


Nude, my feet in the cold shallows,
The motion of the water surface
Barely perceptible, and the sand
Of the bottom in fine sharp ridges
Under my toes, I wade out, waist deep
And swim seaward down the narrow inlet.
In the distance, beyond the sand bar,
The combers are breaking, and nearer,
Like a wave crest escaped and frozen,
One white egret guards the harbor mouth.
The immense stellar phenomenon
Of dawn focuses in the egret
And flows out, and focuses in me
And flows infinitely away
To touch the last galactic dust.

This is the prime reality —
Bird and man, the individual
Discriminate, the self evalued
Actual, the operation
Of infinite, ordered potential.
Birds, sand grains, and souls bleed into being;
The past reclaims its own, “I should have,
I could have — It might have been different —”
Sunsets on Saturn, desert roses,
Corruptions of the will, quality —
The determinable future, fall
Into quantity, into the
Irreparable past, history’s
Cruel irresponsibility.
This is the minimum negative
Condition, the “Condition humaine,”
The tragic loss of value into
Barren novelty, the condition
Of salvation; out of this alone
The person emerges as complete
Responsible act — this lost
And that conserved — the appalling
Decision of the verb “to be.”
Men drop dead in the ancient rubbish
Of the Acropolis, scholars fall
Into self-dug graves, Jews are smashed
Like heroic vermin in the Polish winter.
This is my fault, the horrible term
Of weakness, evasion, indulgence,
The total of my petty fault —
No other man’s.

                            And out of this
Shall I reclaim beauty, peace of soul,
The perfect gift of self-sacrifice,
Myself as act, as immortal person?

I walk back along the sandspit,
The horizon cuts the moon in half,
And far out at sea a path of light,
Violent and brilliant, reflected
From high stratus clouds and then again
On the moving sea, the invisible
Sunrise spreads its light before the moon.

My wife has been swimming in the breakers,
She comes up the beach to meet me, nude,
Sparkling with water, singing high and clear
Against the surf. The sun crosses
The hills and fills her hair, as it lights
The moon and glorifies the sea
And deep in the empty mountains melts
The snow of Winter and the glaciers
Of ten thousand thousand years.




The themes of this night-long “philosophical reverie” (written during War World II) were developed more extensively in Rexroth’s much longer poem The Dragon and the Unicorn.

Excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise. Copyright 1944 New Directions Publishing Corp. Copyright 2003 Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

More Rexroth Poems