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Leonore Wilson: Three Poems About the Fires

Per Fumare

The gods were pleased, 
weren’t they

when that first fragrance man created 
was meant to burn--

It was speech to them, 
ephemeral whispering, 

what I didn’t know in early autumn
as I opened the woodstove, and 

dropped the fists of poems in 
and laid the dry

branches down,
and lit the pyre 

and closed the iron doors 

and the little windows glowed 
gold, the alchemy paused 

and seemed 
to enter me, and I

watched matter become spirit 
and I breathed the white smoke

escaping into the blue heavens
as a child enters the physical 

world, its living soul 
crying out with no

thought of place or origin….



How the ashes bled that day 
and the again and again
petals homely as scuffed shoes;

and the voice of lightning 
and underneath,

the dullard thunder --
for isn’t prayer identical
to the contrition of a plowed field, 

or a bride glimpsed 
through a chintzed window;

and the rustle of time ebbed away,
when the fire became

most fluent as the sun 
hid its back to the rheum
of heaven, and the cinders
were like snakes

within the burrs and thistles,
the way they hissed 

and scuffled 
in the warm-dark invisibly--
baby tongues, bells of pewter,
and the first sparks 

were the vivid orange 
of monarchs

from the summer flowers, 

and the adolescent feathers
of cardinals too,

meaning the furtive birds

flew away with sound 
and it wasn’t rage not-at-all, 

for their beaks held 
tiny morsels of tenderness 

as if they were ripped
from temple vaults…



What do the gods know 
of spirit and matter?

And what about loss
when knowledge

consumes, leaves 
the soil completely barren?

Is this what the oriole sings
at the footstep of dawn, cruel 

bird with breast aflame?

Ashes float from out hands,
like the wing-dust of moths,

ash of history’s shape;
the unfastening

of our once hill-home….

How can the oriole prophesize 
over the sail-cloth of lawn,

perch there impassioned bird
on the backyard fence

as if to mock us?

Oh Mercurius, 
order of the universe 


carbuncle of sun

show us how to change sorrow 
into joy

as you change copper, iron, and tin
into gold.

Leonore Wilson and her family lost their home in California’s Hennessey fire. Her son Hardy Wilson’s article about the family’s tragedy appeared in The Guardian. Click here to read the article.

Cal Fire personnel set a backfire during the Hennessey fire in Napa County, Monday, August 17, 2020. (Kent Porter//The Press Democrat via AP)

4 comments on “Leonore Wilson: Three Poems About the Fires

  1. Stephen Sossaman
    October 31, 2022

    As these poems prove, Leonore Wilson is one of the very few contemporary American poets whose work evokes and belongs with the great ancient world poetry that confronts the starkest matters of our fleeting lives. Reading one of her poems, you know the poem is right before you fully understand why. She is also a master of rich imagery, so we get to enjoy our travels through truth, even if the truth by itself is not always enjoyable. Contemporary poetry is perhaps too often ephemeral, narcissistic, tossed off, first draft-ish, and performative, and thus likely to seem out of date faster than the yogurt in our refrigerators. I expect Leonore Wilson’s poems to last. She grieves over her serious loss in California wildfires, and takes the burden onto herself, rather than putting it on the reader. So far as I know, she has never written a poem not worthy of our attention.


  2. Mary B Moore
    October 30, 2022

    These are beautiful bringing the ode’s original sense of prayer to bear on fire’s creating and destroying, the images quite moving–the birds bearing “tender morsels,” salvation, away from the fire, the prayer for alchemy at the end sent to “the sun’s carbuncle.” Stunning work!


    • Vox Populi
      October 30, 2022

      Thanks, Mary. I completely agree. These poems, especially in sequence, evoke the spiritual power of fire, both cleansing and destroying at the same time.



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