by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
FIRE – the twin-tempered element, comfort and terror, enemy and friend. It has warmed us, cooked our food, and lit our way in the dark since we lived in caves. But it has also murdered us, laying waste our homes, our orchards and crops, our many-towered cities, turning all into ashes.
And we are fascinated, mesmerized by its changing faces. Not a love-hate relationship, but love-fear.
Humans have always looked at the sky, and wondered. It is our nature to try to explain the unknowable, to relate the incomprehensible to the familiar. Everywhere on Earth, people have myths and legends of the stars being fire in the sky, and they all contain truth – in ways we are only beginning to see.
The Song of the Stars
– northern Algonquin
We are the stars which sing,
We sing with our light;
We are the birds of fire,
We fly over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We make a road for spirits,
For the spirits to pass over.
Among us are three hunters
Who chase a bear;
There never was a time
When they were not hunting.
We look down on the mountains.
This is the Song of the Stars.
Camille Dungy gives us a child’s confusion and terror peering into the enemy-face of fire for the first time.
by Camille T. Dungy
Stripped in a flamedance, the bluff backing our houses
quivered in wet-black skin. A shawl of haze tugged tight
around the starkness. We could have choked on August.
Smoke thick in our throats, nearly naked as the earth,
we played bare feet over the heat caught in asphalt.
Could we, green girls, have prepared for this? Yesterday,
we played in sand-carpeted caves. The store we built
sold broken bits of ice plant, empty snail shells, leaves.
Our school’s walls were open sky. We reeled in wonder
from the hills, oblivious to the beckoning
crescendo and to our parent’s hushed communion.
When our bluff swayed into the undulation, we ran
into the still streets of our suburb, feet burning
against a fury that we did not know was change.
How much ‘Children’s Literature’ has changed in a little over a hundred years! This poem by Rudyard Kipling was printed in a book of poems he wrote mostly for small boys. I wonder, does the current limiting of vocabulary and subject-matter for children extinguish the fire of language for them? While the roles of men and women have changed and are still changing in our time, for millennia women kept the home-fires burning while men went — to sea, to hunt, to seek their fortune, or to war.
The Harp Song of the Dane Women
by Rudyard Kipling
What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.
She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.
Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—
Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.
You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.
Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
As all we have left through the months to follow.
Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker ?
While women have been tending hearthfires, flocks, fields and family, John Andrews tells us in this poem that sometimes men long for home, shivering next to a small fire, alone in the wild.
by John C. Andrews
I’ve layed inside my bedroll
…by a thousand dying fires
…and staring in the embers there
…I’ve shivered with desire
The stars have looked down on me
…while the wind has heard me weep
…as I’ve layed there ‘till the morning
…to be warm enough to sleep
I heard the cry of wild geese
…as they make their Southern flight
…passing unseen in the darkness
…of a cold and rainy night
I’ve listened and I’ve understood
…what drives them through the storm
…it’s the hope that each heart carries
…for a place that’s safe and warm
Sometimes the way to find the poem you’re looking for is to write it yourself. Candles are central to our rituals and celebrations, large and small, Fire’s friendly face (as long as you keep them away from the curtains.)
by Nona Blyth Cloud
…above altars of many-named gods
…on a table set for two, prelude to possibilities
…lit by a mourner, memory-spark
…silent vigil, passed hand-to-hand
…in the front window, beckoning home
…lit by joy, for each year’s passing
…when Edison’s gift fails, illumined waiting
…to lift the curse from darkness
Candle, wax and string, encasing centuries
I loved sitting in the nook next to the fireplace in my parents’ house from my preteen through high school years – the perfect place to read, and to wonder what my life would be like when I was finally grown-up. But years later, Fire took the first home my husband and I lived in together, so now I am wary of its power. Sukuki Masajo’s family also lost their home to Fire, while Jane Hirshfield witnessed a terrible fire in Sonoma California, and Ned Balbo gives us an unforgettable description of a fire victim (Warning: graphic imagery)
by Suzuki Masajo
great sunset glow –
in the colour of the fire that
burnt down our house
by Jane Hirshfield
Large moon the deep orange of embers.
Also the scent.
The griefs of others—beautiful, at a distance.
by Ned Balbo
Once, boarding the train to New York City,
The aisle crowded and all seats filled, I glimpsed
An open space—more pushing, stuck in place—
And then saw why: a man, face peeled away,
Sewn back in haste, skin grafts that smeared like wax
Spattered and frozen, one eye flesh-filled, smooth,
One cold eye toward the window. Cramped, shoved hard,
I, too, passed up the seat, the place, and fought on
Through to the next car, and the next, but now
I wonder why the fire that could have killed him
Spared him, burns scarred over; if a life
Is what he calls this space through which he moves,
Dark space we dared not enter, and what fire
Burns in him when he sees us move away.
But Fire does not always choose us; sometimes, we choose it for ourselves, as Buddhist monks in Vietnam did to protest the war; or it is chosen by Hatred for us, like the victim in Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s poem from his Red Summer, about 1919’s race riots across America when over 100 black men were lynched. (Warning: graphic imagery)
Burning Oneself to Death
by Shikichi Takahashi
That was the best moment of the monk’s life.
Firm on a pile of firewood
With nothing more to say, hear, see,
Smoke wrapped him, his folded hands blazed.
There was nothing more to do, the end
Of everything. He remembered, as a cool breeze
Streamed through him, that one is always
In the same place, and there is no time.
Suddenly, a whirling mushroom cloud rose
Before his singed eyes, and he was a mass
Of flame. Globes, one after another, rolled out,
The delighted sparrows flew round like fire balls.
by Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Watch the fire undress him,
how flame fingers each button,
rolls back his collar, unzips him
without sweet talk or mystery.
See how the skin begins to gather
at his ankles, how it slips into
the embers, how it shimmers
beneath him, unshapen, iridescent
as candlelight on a dark negligee.
Come, look at him, at all his goods,
how his whole body becomes song,
an aria of light, a psalm’s kaleidoscope.
Listen as he lets loose an opus,
night’s national anthem, the tune
you can’t name, but can’t stop humming.
There, he burns brilliant as a blue note.
Fire has long been a favored metaphor for writers, and here May Sarton uses it beautifully in an unusual love poem.
A Durable Fire
by May Sarton
For steadfast flame wood must be seasoned,
And if love can be trusted to last out,
Then it must first be disciplined and seasoned
To take all weathers, absences, and doubt.
No resinous pine for this, but the hard oak
Slow to catch fire, would see us through a year.
We learned to temper words before we spoke,
To force the Furies back, learned to forbear,
In silence to wait out erratic storm,
And bury tumult when we were apart.
The fires were banked to keep a winter warm
With heart of oak instead of resinous heart,
And in this testing year beyond desire,
Began to move toward durable fire.
Fire’s many-edged sword often severs us from the past, but that is not always a bad thing, as we see in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.
Burning the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
No discussion in English of ‘Fire in Poetry’ would be complete without Byron’s poem about Prometheus, self-sacrificing Bringer of Fire to humankind; and at least a taste of William Shakespeare – so difficult to choose just these fires from his many riches.
by Lord Byron
Titan! to whose immortal eyes
…..The sufferings of mortality,
…..Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
…..Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
…..Until its voice is echoless.
Titan! to thee the strife was given
…..Between the suffering and the will,
…..Which torture where they cannot kill;
And the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate,
Which for its pleasure doth create
The things it may annihilate,
Refus’d thee even the boon to die:
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine—and thou hast borne it well.
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.
Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
…..To render with thy precepts less
…..The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
…..Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
…..A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
…..To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
…..A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself—and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
…..Its own concenter’d recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.
Henry the Fifth, Act 1, Prologue
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
…This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
…To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I will close with words from two masters, the Sufi master, Rumi, and the Zen master, Kukai.
Set your life on fire.
Seek those who fan your flames.
Singing Image of Fire
by Kukai, Kōbō-Daishi
A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,
Triangles, squares: all things change when we do.
The first word, “Ah,” blossomed into all others.
Each of them is true.
- “The Song of the Stars” from the northern Algonquin, collected by Charles G. Leland (1884) — http://www.clarkfoundation.org/astro-utah/vondel/songofstars.html
- “First Fire” from What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, © 2006 Camille Dungy, Red Hen Press
- “The Harp Song of the Dane Women” from Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906)
- “Cold Nights” by John C. Andrews, printed with the author’s permission
- “Candle” by Nona Blyth Cloud (2016)
- “Haiku”from Love Haiku: Masajo Suzuki’s Lifetime of Love © August, 2000, Brooks Books
- “Sonoma Fire” from Poetry Magazine (December 2010)
- “Fire Victim” from Lives of the Sleepers, © 2005 by Ned Balbo, University of Notre Dame Press
- “Burning Oneself to Death,” from Triumph of the Sparrow
- “Burlesque”from Red Summer, © 2006 by Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Tupelo Press
- “A Durable Fire” from A Durable Fire: New Poems © 1972 by May Sarton, W.W. Norton
- “Burning the Old Year” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye, Far Corner Books
- “Prometheus” (1816) George Gordon, Lord Byron: Selected Poems, Dover Thrift Editions
- Henry the Fifth, “Prologue”— from Shakespeare’s play
- Macbeth, Act 5, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” — from Shakespeare’s play
- “Sonnet 73” — Shakespeare’s Sonnets
- “Set your life on fire” from Rumi Poetry: 101 Quotes Of Wisdom On Life, Love And Happiness
- “Singing Image of Fire” — https://theuncarvedblog.com/2012/01/02/singing-image-of-fire-a-poem-by-kukai-with-thoughts-on-language-translation-and-creation/
- northern Algonquin — traditional, collected by Charles G. Leland (1884)
- Camille T. Dungy — African American poet: Smith Blue (2011); Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of an American Book Award; sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006), PEN Center USA Literary Award finalist
- Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) — English author, Kim, Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, etc. Won 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature
- John C. Andrews — Texas poet and song-writer, AKA River Rover – thanks for allowing Cold Nights to be included and for permission to use your given name, John
- Nona Blyth Cloud — I post something here at Flowers for Socrates just about every day, Word Cloud every Friday — I may not be paid, but it beats hell out of ‘retirement’
- Suzuki Masajo (1906-2003) — one of the most famous women haiku poets inside Japan, her work is becoming better-known in the rest of the world
- Jane Hirshfield (1953 – ) — poet and translator, The Beauty(2015), National Book Award finalist; Come, Thief (2011); After(2006), shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize; and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), National Book Critics Award finalist
- Ned Balbo — poet and essayist, Galileo’s Banquet (1998), Towson University Prize for Literature; Lives of the Sleepers (2005); and The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (2010), selected for the Poets’ Prize
- Shikichi Takahashi (1901-1987) — pioneer in Japanese Dadaism. major 20th century Zen poet; Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (2000), Grove Press; After Images: Zen Poems by Shinkichi Takahashi (1972), Anchor Books
- Amaud Jamaul Johnson — California-born African-American poet, Cave Canem Fellow, Darktown Follies (2013) and Red Summer (2006), Pushcart Prize winner
- May Sarton (1912-1995) — prolific poet and memoirist, pioneer in American lesbian letters; Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961); A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971); I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959); Journal of a Solitude(1973)
- Naomi Shihab Nye (1952 — ) — poet, songwriter, Palestinian-American; Yellow Glove (1986) Breitenbush Books; Red Suitcase: Poems (1994) BOA Editions
- George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) — leading poet in British Romantic Movement; Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I & II (1812); The Corsair (1814); The Prisoner of Chillon (1816)
- William Shakespeare (1564-1616) — playwright and poet, acknowledged as greatest dramatist in the English Language, 38 plays, 154 sonnets
- Rumi (1207–1273) — Persian scholar, poet, Sufi mystic; Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī (collection of couplets)
- Kukai, Kōbō-Daishi (774-835) — Japanese Buddhist monk, Zen master, founder of the Shingon (“True Word”) school of Buddhism; poet and artist
- Milky Way, viewed near Palomar Observatory, Southern California
- Firefighter mopping up in burned-out house
- By the Hearth by Platt Powell Ryder (1881)
- Alone in the Forest painting, artist uncredited
- Candle flame in the dark
- Flame blocks
- Stone fireplace
- Letters burning
- Prometheus detail from a drawing by Washington Allston (1779-1843)
- Autumn leaves on stone
- Firey Floral Blossoms, detail, artist uncredited
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud