Coin of the Realm

Coin of the Realm

Phillips, Carl

Wrecked tiaras; plundered tombs ago-Beauty

was form, and form was discipline when, at last,

it forgets itself. Glamour and scandal weren’t yet

the same. Devotion was what it mostly still is:

a force. A willed exception. Some wore armor-

and to those who wore it others knelt, making of

the body and its gestures a complicated,

though very efficient braid of courtesy and

debasement-against all of which, no voice

from either party is said to have cried out, ever:

in fact, they worked together, so well, it made

labor seem a music, almost, in the way

the fluttering of a tattered flag-the sound

of that-and that of a whole one also fluttering

make a kind of music, though a music born

of accident, which they had long since stopped

trying to distinguish from fixed circumstance,

which is to say fate-their version of it-

which they did believe in. They believed in the gods,

and it is true the gods lived, for a time,

among them. Less credible: that the gods,

when they retreated, did so because convinced

no one prayed anymore, or not enough.

Or not to them. They simply left. In the wake

of which, the citizens continued turning wilderness

into settlement. Inscribing, as had been the custom,

each new building with that motto in which,

if anywhere, they seem clearly to have intended

to announce a sensibility they either thought

most defined them, or they hoped it would seem to:

Trust Me, As I Trust You-Meaning what, though?

That they were naive? unexacting? shrewd?

Each possibility is a real one,

as the difference it makes is real, when it comes

to determining not what manner of end they came to-

that part is legend-but to what degree, having found

you must, you must call it something, you will call it

inevitable. Deserved, even. Maybe worth what it cost.

Copyright New England Review 2004

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