Jason Marc Harris
To Watch the World Burn
We all decided to watch:
Whether gazing at our glittering screens
Or staring while gathered upon the wide grassy field
Where tents had sprung up like overnight crops of toadstools,
Huddling our masses in the shade of billowing folds of canvas,
Drooping down and breathing out—
Jellyfish caps propelling onwards amid frantic waves.
It crouched. As though blind to our fervor.
A marvel of either science or magic.
In the wrecked jungle of the Amazon
This fable was found.
Burgundy feathers, onyx eyes whose blood-red pupil pinpricks
Stared out at the strange world of steel and smoke—
Caught at last.
In their indigenous tongue, the natives said that it was the real deal.
Yes—they said without hesitation—it would burn and be reborn.
One naysaying zoologist warned
The prehistoric bird’s favorite fruit had gone extinct.
We must not expect too great a show for our fallen world.
Despite detractors, this ancient raptor began to fume
And sputter in the cage on the scaffold.
Each emaciated wing bent and jerked to test the air,
The metal crane raised the bars from over the imprisoned fowl,
And now it was “going to get good, Jim”—
That’s what the news anchorwoman chirped around the world.
The hooting crowd cackled and crowed
While the ancient bird raised its beak.
Ruddy eyes looked skyward, before the phoenix tripped over
Its own scaly talons to sprawl and smolder.
A sour musty stench drifted upwards
As its faded feathers flaked.
An embarrassing display.
No glory in its shriveled and sallow nakedness:
A few puny purplish flames flickered.
The naturalists had indeed protested that this phoenix was too old.
They had stressed that it might not perform.
It might be altogether barren.
The bird matched the scientific estimation of its impotence.
The crumbling carcass
Molted into sweltering ashes without
Any sign of the exploding flames that people had come
From faraway countries to behold and bow to the divine blaze.
This carmine marvel of our time, this incandescent emblem of hope—
A florid rebirth from the corrupt morass into which we had sunk.
True believers held their breath.
Their souls awaited the cleansing ruby conflagration.
The phoenix tried to sing its song of fire.
But only a pinkish glow flickered from molten coals—
Charred fragments of brittle cerise vertebrae and sluggish ochre cartilage.
Crimson wheezes spattered from consumptive lungs.
Mutterings of disappointment mixed with the sour breeze,
Wafted with the scent of death to every nostril.
“Not quite the fiery nightingale we were promised, Jim.”
Then something stirred under the earth.
A hole gaped near the platform,
And a warty paw reached out to gather
The paltry embers of the once mythic bird.
We watched in horror at the sheer size of this strange thing from the hidden abyss.
Filthy black-and-gray mottled claws picked the scraps
Of fallen myth off of the wood. Scraped away the dead legend,
Slunk again below the very earth which rolled bneath us.
A troubling nausea in the bowels, morbid doubt in the guts,
Aftershocks of doom.
What were we fertilizing under the ground?
Had apocalyptic anticipation sickened our savior?
Had our despair ruined our blazing deliverance?
Shouts, groans, and screams
Punctuated the breakup of our ceremony,
Our séance, our carnival.
Then, a burst of cheers!
The covenanted flames of old
Shot finally forth from the underworld maw.
Saved at last!
Rising up with its towering black and red
Wings of smoke and scarlet,
Fire was indeed the new incarnation.
Its florid girth of flames eclipsed the sun in a vermilion halo
That silenced the hollering halleluiahs and seared the eyes of the prophets.
When our sublime prodigy opened its mouth and lit the sky,
We were sorry that we had ever prayed to watch the world burn.
Jason Marc Harris graduated with a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington, and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Stories in Arroyo Literary Review, Body Parts Magazine: The Journal of Horror and Erotica, Bull, Cheap Pop, EveryDay Fiction, Jellyfish Review, Masque and Spectacle, Marvels and Tales, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Midwestern Gothic The Offbeat, Psychopomp Magazine, and Riding Light Review. Books include Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book and The Troll Tale and Other Scary Stories. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX.
Editor’s Notes: This narrative poem is experimental using structural elements in a way that isn’t typically seen. The line breaks are not necessarily enjambed, but image and rhythm driven.
The complementing image is a sunset afterglow with lots of implied possibilities and the legendary Phoenix.