By Maurice Tuck
Moon-raking talon, pale nail of the night in the light of that planet,
Pall mall in flight over sky-scraping towers of crystalline granite.
Surging escarpments soar desperate upward, all reason discarded.
Proud perching summits by precipice girded, by palisade guarded,
Stone-faced and silent, stare desolate downward with frowns unforgiving;
Feigning and shamming, they seem not to see me nor sense I am living.
Canting crags, long I have sought you, though knowing afar you have cursed me,
Ranting while Gods who have wrought you are fled before needs that have nursed me.
Slanting slags, dread I have taught you for dread in these matters has versed me.
Panting and passion have bought you no respite and threats have not burst me,
Rendered through yearning insensate, unmoved by your fear and your malice,
Shaken by lusting corrupting my pity, you quail at that callus,
Cancerous callus, which hardens my heart to such desperate pleading.
Know what I crave as I gaze on your faces, your sorrows unheeding.
Fierce in your fastness you shelter a bird out of legend, undying,
The Phoenix, splendor of Providence, Time and the seasons defying.
Final frontier of my longing, last stop to this sorrowful searcher,
Yield me the treasure you shepherd, surrender the jewel (that) you nurture.
Trance-like my body approaches in motions of dismal distortion;
Forward this animate corpse sets its limbs in unwilling contortion.
Bleakness and bitterness vie in my heart as I enter the darkness
Drawn from those baleful, calamitous cliffs, cloaked in shadowy starkness.
Scornful of perils of Spirit, I climb though I know it is treason,
Daring the heights as the bitter stone bites at my bones and my reason.
Blindly I climb by compulsion, pulled upward, by hunter’s art guided,
Finding my prey, led by sinister senses to stalkers provided.
Winding my way, sped by coveting, fed by unsanctified fountains,
Tracking the Phoenix’s nest, guarded guest of these mothering mountains.
Arms climb unerringly, numb with my senses all cast in confusion.
Upward ‘til cliffs loom inverted and twirling walls work the delusion
That I am clambering downward headfirst, in a whirling wind sinking;
Madly they swirl, hungry dervishes scorching, confusing my thinking.
Upward ‘til shorn of all meaning, my lust, worn and chapped, alone lingers.
Upward ‘til close on the furthermost cliff, borne and wrapped in stone fingers,
Shimmers the Phoenix nest, soul searing sight in this night of my spirit.
Upward ‘til finding my quarry, though fearing it lost as I near it.
Safe from unlucky discovery, swathed though I am in the lune light,
– Regent now reigning in Scorpio – bathed like a lamb in the moon might;
Surely it’s safe for tonight is the night of the Quest of the Phoenix.
Twice a millennium must he go hunting for cassia kindling,
Frankincense resin and desert herbs grown as his lifeline was dwindling.
Tinder to build him a hallowing pyre, celebration and ritual,
Dead wood to fashion a funeral fire, conflagration obitual.
Reaching at length the untenanted nest, I am spent and soul-weary.
Kneeling I find the three perfect red feathers which rest in his eyrie.
Ravening greed of a lifetime be shamed at such sating repletion –
Feathers of color divine and of fashion to bring to completion
Decades of arduous auguries sending me searching dominions,
Seeking these three noble almost impervious crimson red pinions,
Subject this night to a daring and ruthless destruction by burning.
Red feather ripped from a wing by a gryphon with screeching and churning;
Crimson, primordial plume from his collar’s crest plucked by ungentle
Gold-eyed Arabian harpies in battles through skies elemental;
Precious and perilous plume from his scarlet chest savagely wrested;
Cruelly contested the Sphinx in the heights where the Phoenix once nested.
Plumes which the Phoenix had gathered and cached in this haven through ages,
Plumes which I pillage and prison with fingers, most craven of cages.
Feathers exposed to the lust of the lord of the lord of this bower,
Feathers I’ve closed in my hand at command of my merciless power.
Sunrise, each feather together with Phoenix in timeworn perfection,
Must unto ashes to rise up renewed in sublime resurrection.
Quickly I muster a flame for I faintly can hear him approaching,
Soughing and sighing and dreadfully flying, my solitude broaching.
“Thief,” cries a fell voice. “Who’s crept here to sunder my fate and my doom,
To pilfer my radiant pinion, to plunder my ruby-red plume,
To rob me of beauty and wisdom and hazard my hope never ending?”
Dire is his voice and his majesty, vast is his form and light-lending,
Glowing with red hue and shifting sheen, shining with grace incandescent.
“Phoenix,” I answer him tremblingly. “Sell me your knowledge senescent,
Lest in these embers which bask in the moonbeams of fiery negation,
Cast I your feathers to burn before sunrise brings timely salvation.
Three are my queries and thrice must you answer ere morning may shrive you.”
“Wretched and dreary’s the price of the cancers suborning that drive you,”
Whispers the Phoenix. “yet quickly make question, my time has diminished,
Long have I hunted for branches and herbs and the night is nigh finished.”
“First of my questions is whence are you come, of which parents created?”
“Fire was my sire, and the ash was my dame, by the twain consummated,
Firstborn of history, wrought of the flame and the pain of brute matter.”
“Second, dear mystery, what is your greatness that words cannot flatter,”
Boldly I ask and surrender one feather. “Discourse now your feature.
Tell of your purpose and whether you nature is spirit or creature.”
“I am the sweet song of the morning, the promise of life everlasting,
Hope to the sorrowful bringing, and light into dark regions casting.
I am the circle eternal, returning, the sign and the wonder.”
Swiftly I grant him a plume lest his roaring voice rend me asunder.
“Finally, Phoenix, reveal to me shy immortality’s token.
Teach me of life everlasting as seal of the boast you have spoken;
What is this secret you cherish,” I beg him, my blood pound madly.
“Answer or perish,” I curse while the Phoenix stares silently, sadly.
“No,” he refuses. “I cannot obey though you set into peril
Sanctity hallowed past ken of a reason both shallow and sterile.
Yet I have gained in untold repetition my uttermost measure.
Grown to its wondrous great stature, your worth shall exceed my worth’s treasure.
Child of infinity, one day your soul shall transcend its mean vessel,
Earned undefiled the divinity now you must ravish by wrestle.
Grimly agreeing your curses decreeing me banned to Nonbeing,
Ever to wander, an essence unliving, a vision unseeing.
But in replying I’d bind what is boundless, your soul crucifying,
Chained to a mind and a body too meager – its glory denying,
Spreading your flaw through the ages like circles in streams that are rippled.
All imperfections conclude, but you tarry – a God who is crippled.
Swiftly pass sentence ere breaks forth the dawning, my freedom acclaiming.”
Late comes the warning – the first light of morning with ominous flaming
Kindles the pyre with its cleansing caresses and turning, now touches
Lightly the bird, who exultantly tears his reprieve from my clutches,
Laughs, and embraces the flesh-searing beacon which feeds on his beauty,
Towering hugely, fulfilling with reverend passion its duty.
Nothing remains of the Phoenix but ash and a fiery pillar
Laden with heavy white ethers which grow as the burning grows stiller –
Ribbons of vapor devising a previous figure, yet vaster,
Shorn of all color and taint save the faint shade of white alabaster,
Forming ‘til hovers before me as chaste as the snows of tomorrow
The Phoenix, dazzling in pristine propriety wrought through his sorrow.
Raised in redemption primeval, perfection from blemish unblended,
Fabulous flight from the night newly ended to light now ascended,
Glorious flight from the wrack of the rood where all tarnish was riven,
Pledging the promise – what madness has worked may through grace be forgiven.
Copyright by Maurice Tuck, 1978
writing as Gabriel Alighieri