Monday, February 13, 2017

On Reading "Fire: The Morning Ritual"

If you just wandered in and are puzzled, what I'm getting at here is the poem I put up as the previous post on February 7. 

In general the way we see and understand any given situation will be conditioned by what we bring to the situation. Reality is filtered through the lenses of our fears, hopes and previous life experiences. So with poetry, each of us will have at least slightly different takes on what a poem is about or means. And that’s fine.

Actually, although I often like to play the game of explaining what a poem is “about” or what it “means,” the experience a poem invites a reader to participate in seems to me a more useful thing to talk about. I notice about this poem that it does not make a declaratory statement of meaning, instead offering a string of “-ing” verbals – actions, happenings (or experiences). However, the poem includes declaratory elements, in the title and in two “like the . . . ” similes, that stand out as important clues to “meaning.” (More on those elements later.)

So you see my life experience as a college English teacher makes me likely to take an interest in technical details that most readers would have no conscious awareness of or interest in. Does this mean that I was consciously employing such methods as I wrote the poem? Not at all. I remarked to Judy one morning after building the morning fire, “ I think I saw a poem lurking in the firewood this morning.” And the next morning I got up before daybreak, built the fire, sat down at my fireside computer, and sketched out the previous morning's fire-building experience. Looking at the poem later as a reader, I see here and there elements having significances I had no conscious intention of putting into the poem. So much for “author intention,” eh?

Of course those things I “discover” there are concerns I bring to the writing and the reading, whether consciously or unconsciously – concern and frustration about humankind’s collective failure to grasp the consequences of the physical laws of thermodynamics or the mathematical truth of the exponential function. Knowledge that our entire civilization, built on a one-time gift of fossil fuel energy, is unsustainable and about to come crashing down around us – unless we can, collectively, slow down and scale back to a much simpler and less energy-dependent way of living.

While our current concerns focus on fossil fuel energy, I can’t see or hear the word “fire” in any context without at least some dim awareness that control of fire was the first advance in humankind’s long march to total domination of Earth. Instead of being part of nature, we would become its lord and master. Control of fire provided protection from predators and warmth enabling humans to spread into inhospitably cold climates; made us smarter (too smart for our own good) because the ability to cook food freed evolution to put more energy into brain development than into our jaws and chewing muscles; and enabled us to clear land for slash and burn agriculture, feeding population growth. 

Getting to the reading:

The title. We’re invited to think of a general subject, fire, and about the particular instance, a morning ritual, the word “ritual” suggesting that what’s going on is somehow important, that heating our home with firewood is an experience that imparts or embodies meaningfulness in our lives.

So I’m primed for a poem-story describing, celebrating, and being thankful for this one aspect of The Simple Life: warming ourselves with natural, locally-sourced, organic, sustainable and free-range firewood! This is the aspect of the poem that most readers so far have reported seeing, understanding and liking. I like it too.

But for my reader, that’s not all. I see that our Fire-Builder is aware that the beings making up his “firewood” might have purposes of their own beyond serving his needs: “dry buds that will blossom only to start my fire.” I’m inclined to see in this a tinge of grief or guilt. He really appreciates those twigs and is “sorry ‘bout that?” But when he gets to his favorite piece of firewood he makes it a willing volunteer, a “compliant sacrificial victim.” And I suddenly realize that there are people “Out There” who believe literally that all of nature is out there, was maybe put there by God, to be sacrificed in service to our needs. And our appetites. (See post The Oil We Eat, December 11, 2016.)

Is our supplicant Fire-Builder one of Them? I hope not. But it seems somewhat ominous that the supplication is expressed not as the simple, limited and immediately physical “keep me warm,” but the more abstract and unqualified “serve my need.” I note also that there is tension between those two “like the . . .” similes I mentioned. “Like the supplicant I am” says I see myself as an humble petitioner seeking a gift of warmth from Nature (that particular tree, but also with help from the newspaper, the woodstove, the chain saw, the matches, etc.). In a sacrificial ritual, the victim is offered to the deity, or to whatever source of good stuff we hope will provide. The “compliant sacrificial victim,” however, is not a gift to the Nature deity, but a gift from Nature. A sacrifice to serve the need of the Fire-Builder.  

One more point – The Fire-Builder makes an emphatic point of dividing Out There, with its Ugliness, from (by implication) the warm and fuzzy simple-living In Here. Okay, we have in here a little model of the Better Way, as far as possible uncontaminated by the ugliness Out There. That’s good. But it occurs to my reader that the In Here of the poem also portrays, without explicitly acknowledging it, an inside/outside divide. That particular tree is out there, the chain saw being the tool to bring it in here to the hearth and the woodstove.  Can we be sure, then, that our warm and fuzzy simple-living here is not also modeling the divide we know is part of the Ugliness outside: the delusion that we in our built environment are privileged to treat everything else outside as at least potential “natural resources” to serve our needs. The delusion that we are not part of nature, but lord and master of all.

Your reader may by now have thrown up his or her hands, saying something like “This poem is a mess, can’t make up its mind, pieces thrown together that don’t fit together, just doesn’t make any clear sense I can make out.” That’s a reasonable assessment, I think. To me, though, the disconnects, the tensions and even contradictions simply (or complexly) convey the two-sided experience of our Fire-Builder. Happy with his simple lifestyle, but aware that even his lowest-impact, back-to-basics home heating is supported by the ugliness he opposes, aware of his dependence on that beloved but fossil-fueled chain saw. So “compliant sacrificial victim” is bitterly ironic, he knows it isn’t true, knows that feeling that way is a temptation of the Ugliness. And he hurries away from it with “Then quickly finding the other right size . . . .”  and insisting on his self-justifying thankfulness for everything that serves . . . .

Back to the title. The “General: Specific” formula suggests there might be others to come in the Fire series. One might be “Fire: The Internal Combustion Engine.” I bring that in because this morning I read an article on the internet that said:

The World-Ending Fire is the title of Wendell Berry’s forthcoming collection of essays, and in shockingly frank, dark, and prescient imagery, he said, “if you want to be desperate about it, you can say that the World-Ending Fire is burning in every internal combustion engine every day.” As someone reliant on an inefficient old pickup, he noted that this implicated him as well. “We’ve been burning the world up, literally, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Coal is the earth. Petroleum is the earth.”

I’ll have more to say about that. Google willing, of course.

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