Of the Phoenix

Only the priest of the temple knows when it was born.

He has the date in a book, so he can be ready,

when its time has come, to build the fire on the altar:

 

cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, twigs of balm, virgin sulphur.

It will be heaped up, unlit, when the bird blunders in,

faffing between the pillars like a panicked sparrow,

 

but the size of an eagle, its colours now tarnished

by five hundred years of sandstorms.  Yet it remembers

at last what to do, and climbs on to its nest of spice,

 

lifting its neck and fanning with its wings till the sparks

wake in the dull feathers and catch in their own tinder.

Then it is sitting on flame, and the smell fills the air,

 

incense, banquet and bonfire in one. Its trumpetings

are triumph seasoned with agony. When they die down

there is nothing left but a puffy cushion of ash.

 

Next day the priest sifts through the coolness with his fingers

and finds a maggot no bigger than a nail paring,

which, by the next, has formed into a body and wings.

 

And by the third morning it is a whole bird, preening

the last ash from its scarlet wings and indigo back.

It sputters once more round the tall spaces, and flies out.

 

There is only one in the world. If you should see it,

a dragonfly speck overhead as you cross the sand,

it is a sign of good luck. Your journey will prosper.

from Mandeville (Faber, 2008), ? Matthew Francis 2008, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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