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Recorded by Rowan Ricardo Phillips for Poem-a-Day, a series produced by the Academy of American Poets. Published on April 12, 2019.
About this Poem 

“Caught, as we all are, in the spooky gaze of this world, I found myself re-reading in John Donne’s ‘Meditation XII’ from his 1624 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. A friend sent it to me some time ago remarking that, in light of what's going on, it cuts right to the bone. And does it ever. That said, ‘Who Is Less Than a Vapor?’ isn’t quite a found poem or an erasure—instead, it feels to me like language in the crux of being instrument, weapon, and tool all at once. These days I find myself in that mode: listening for the base poem, that sample you still can find while digging in the crates of the mind; the dwindling voice that nevertheless for the future singers sings.”
—Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Who Is Less Than a Vapor?

      —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.

Copyright © 2019 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 12, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

 

Copyright © 2019 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 12, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

 

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Born in New York City in 1974, Rowan Ricardo Phillips earned his BA at Swarthmore College and his PhD at Brown University.

He is the author of two books of poetry: Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), which was a longlist finalist for the National Book Award, and The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), for which he received the 2013 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Poetry and the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award.

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