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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…. . Psalm 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 undistinguishable 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… . Mercurius 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 reversed, carbuncle of sun inviolable, 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)
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.
Thank you for this eloquent praise, Stephen.
M. Michael Simms http://www.michaelsimms.info
Author of Bicycles of the Gods https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09ZYTM9J5/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1 Author of Nightjar https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1933974435/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2 Author of American Ash https://www.amazon.com/American-Ash-Poems-Michael-Simms/dp/1933974397/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2PC9VWO127ZSF&dchild=1&keywords=american+ash+by+michael+simms&qid=1593969710&s=books&sprefix=American+ash,aps,133&sr=1-1 Editor of Vox Populi https://voxpopulisphere.com/
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!
Thanks, Mary. I completely agree. These poems, especially in sequence, evoke the spiritual power of fire, both cleansing and destroying at the same time.