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    glowing embers from a fire

    Poem: “Vanished Fire”

    By James Matthew Wilson

    November 4, 2023
    • Kathleen Gerace

      I am left speechless and after the second reading am reminded of C.S.Lewis who also could capture the depth and fullness of life in shuch deft sentences. With all the horrors reported daily in the world news the likes of this gives one something that restores balance. For this I am immensely grateful.

    Bright burning embers fall to somber coals,
    And, in the morning light, the emptied nook
    Seems the sole darkness on which eye may look,
    In such a room, where whites make brilliant wholes
    Of drapes and spreading carpet, couch and china bowls.
    But there, that lately-burning mouth
    Now speaks of shadow and of drouth,
    As if to shame our dog-eared fireside book;
    Its story of a marriage made
    And sentiments that never fade,
    Brought by the fire’s fainting flash
    To seem as fragile as a bough of ash.

    And ash, indeed, the world has often been.
    The much-loved friend and confidant, in time,
    Returns but to remind you of some crime
    Of youth, committed while the mind was green
    But knew already what the errant will could mean;
    The boy you followed home to beat
    Then made a coward’s quick retreat,
    Your knuckles smeared with sweat and dust and grime.
    He represents what you’d forget,
    The foolish plot or night’s regret,
    Not with his words, but in his face
    Whose lines seem like a script the eye may trace.

    No shortage of reminders such as this;
    They come, alas, just when some touch of pride
    Has made the world seem glass on which to glide;
    Just when we think that there is no abyss
    Waiting to greet our blithe face with a sloppy kiss.
    That thing you said to someone’s harm
    Which you had thought a sign of charm,
    But now see no one near you could abide;
    The casual dishonesty
    To show the world that you were free
    Now shows itself for what it was:
    A mere enchantment at one’s own applause.

    These, we know, are the wounds of vanity.
    The voice within reports that we are great
    And lulls us to believe it with sweet bait
    That feeds the hungry ear on fantasy,
    And shouts down every voice that dares to disagree
    With what it offered as the case.
    But then, that voice will spin in place
    And where it praised before, now snarls with hate
    At how the world’s a mass of flies
    That procreates and feeds and dies,
    That savors vice, that lives for power
    And never knows a kind or noble hour.

    Yet, even in the silence of the mind,
    Chastened and clarified, we sense indeed
    The world’s a wilderness where all things bleed,
    Its cities bombed, its people scarred and blind,
    Its fruits grown overripe and eaten to the rind
    Though all still hunger. Who could say
    It’s just imagination’s play
    That finds a father’s murder or his greed
    Endemic to the life we know?
    Whatever else the world may show,
    It finds time for the child whom
    A cold indifference severs from the womb.

    glowing embers from a fire

    Photograph by Tolga Ahmetler

    These ashes in the fire, these half-burnt logs
    Left blackened, riven, and disintegrating
    Behind the scorched and bent and weathered grating
    Will give themselves away as analogues
    For grave and petty wounds the psyche catalogues.
    If evil’s the enduring fact
    So is this way our minds react
    To find out figures for our contemplating,
    This doubling of things as signs
    Which opens them as it defines
    And helps the intellect to see
    Even within the darkest mystery.

    Such is the strangeness of most beauty’s birth.
    Amid the battered armor on the field,
    Some victor paints a crest upon his shield
    And vows to treat the weak as things of worth.
    A fixed stare on the crumbling deep of blackest earth
    Will find concealed within that sight
    The thought of everlasting light.
    The open wound shows how it may be healed.
    We would not choose to learn this way.
    Why can’t the mind know only day?
    Surely the form of truth does not
    Require acquaintance first with death and rot.

    Imagine, for a moment, such a place
    As saints and wise men sometimes tell us of;
    A place not here, but, in a sense, above,
    Where all is light and plenitude and grace;
    No abstract thing, it meets us with a radiant face.
    On sight, we know that we are blest
    To find in it perpetual rest.
    This alone is the object of our love,
    And could we know it from the start
    The soul would never once depart.
    But, here, in battered things, we find
    Faint traces that will summon it to mind.

    What, for some other sort of creature, may
    Seem a distraction from that elegance,
    For us has the necessity of dance,
    Its suffering that reorders us for play,
    Its discipline that strengthens those who first obey.
    Some of us sense it and draw back,
    Refuse to name this thing we lack,
    But savor its sensation of a trance,
    As if that were the most of it,
    And not a sign to make us fit
    For that long passage now begun
    Which scatters us before it makes us one.

    How curious that what transcends all things
    Should choose to hide itself within them too,
    And pierce the sky’s finality of blue.
    What seems the last is but the first of rings
    That from the dark whirls outward on extended wings.
    Thus in the empty living room,
    Out of the vanished fire’s tomb,
    Such veering thoughts will sometimes come to you.
    They settle in the memory
    Whose eyes, with failing vision, see
    Inside those ashes that appear
    A brilliance, distant, foreign, and yet clear.

    Contributed By JamesMatthewWilson James Matthew Wilson

    James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Professor of Humanities and the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas.

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