Burning

letter I t’s fascinating to me how memory and associations work; this weirdly human cognitive process (or set of connective processes) seems to wire us for poetry, for art, for metaphor, analogy, and symbolism–for dreams and the surreal, and for curiosity and wonderment.

I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame when I was in Paris at age 16, an experience indelible in my mind. And yet, what arrived when I sat down to write my poem for this particular April day is a different, though related, image and experience. One I had not thought about for many years, not since this post, probably.

~

Cathedral, Burning

In a work of fiction, the church aflame would act as symbol; in a sermon,
as analogy, something metaphorical in both church and fire; but listen,
my childhood church, First Presbyterian of Yonkers, burned to the ground–
steeple towers, bricks, stained glass, oak pews–in 1968, faulty electric
wires, not an act of God, nothing symbolic about it, no medieval art, no
gargoyles, no rose window; and I can attest to fire’s brute facts, the physics
of heat, the combustion chemistry my father’s brother studied for years, how
even stone can change in fire, transmute, char, chip, and timbers light up
like a droughty forest, glass fused into new-made forms and smoke erupting
to chorus its own pronouncement louder than prayer; and there is no alleluia
yet there is no satan, only what the earth is made of changing its form
(molecular re-arrangements) but not its substance, which is earth, and ours.
~

Archival photo here.

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Flame and ash

I have often imagined what it feels like to lose everything in a fire. Particularly if you are a writer or painter, and you work with easily consumable tools–paper, for example. Maxine Hong Kingston has been articulate and interesting on this situation; perhaps it was her well-reported experience that first got me thinking about how terribly affecting such a loss would be. In 1999, a friend of ours whose business is woodworking lost his shop, tools, work, and wood in a workshop fire. The shock was the worst part–like Hong Kingston, our friends had been away from home and returned to find cinders where their livelihood had been.

Last week, Michael Czarnecki, publisher and sole proprietor of FootHills Publishing, was vacationing in Maine when he learned his house and business had burned to the ground. I have heard that phrase before–but it was literally the case: to the ground. With the loss of clothing, memorabilia, musical instruments, furniture, etc. came the loss of livelihood and the loss of FootHills’ archive of 20+ years of small-press publishing. Many, many books went up in flames, a life’s work.

Paul Martin's chapbook

Paul Martin’s lovely chapbook Morning on Canal Street, FootHills Publishing.

Michael has been documenting the remains and posting images on his Facebook Page. Pictured here, what’s left of a copy of Paul Martin’s chapbook, one of the few that were still recognizable after the tragedy. Paul is a colleague of mine, and this photo makes me sad.

I am sure Michael has not yet done a full accounting of his destroyed inventory. The two books of mine he published are certainly among the casualties, and I feel a selfish pang over that. If he gets the press up and running again–and he plans to (he is an optimist and a hard worker)–he’ll probably try to reprint at least some of the 300 or so books FootHills has produced over the years. The more recent books will be easier to reprint, as he had his computer with him and it was not lost in the fire…pdf files of some of the books are intact. But the “history” of the press…its archival, early chapbooks, may be gone for good.

Once again, I reflect on ephemera. One of the most moving photos Michael took is one of his sons’ birth certificates, charred, the edges the same color as the tiny footprints that are still visible. We are so vulnerable.

And we endure, too. Our art helps us to manage these difficult passages. Love helps us navigate the ashes.

If you are interested in and financially able to help FootHills Publishing recover and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes, you can go to the FootHills website and donate through PayPal or send a check to

FootHills Publishing
PO Box 68
Kanona, NY 14856

Thanks very much. As Michael Czarnecki says, “Never stop asking for poems.”