The World is On Fire: Everyday Magic, Day 983

I sit on the morning porch, the hedge apples across from me growing into softball-sized green brains, soon to be heavy enough that we’ll need to avoid parking our cars under them. The birds to the west chirp, interrupting the steady buzz of cicadas and crickets to the east. All is apparently as peaceful as the cat asleep on the chair beside me, but of course, this is just one moment in a world on fire.

For the last three weeks, the Amazon burns, and just today, according to The New York Times, more than 500 Brazilian government employees signed a letter of warning that the country’s environmental protections could easily collapse. The leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro and others has fanned the flames of land-grabbing to the extent that over 27,400 fires are burning right now. While the reality about Amazon fires is far more complicated that news bites about the lungs of the world burning (see this recent article in Forbes for more), the undeniable reality, seen from space even, shows the massive expanse of the fires. Political fires between the G7 and the Brazilian president burn their own through-lines without any clarity of what can be done and if it can done soon enough.

Meanwhile, humongous fires burning for over three months in Siberia, a result of climate change, send “a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union” through the northern reaches of Russia, according to the BBC. Thousands of migrant children, separated from their parents and imprisoned in detention centers, are suffering not just the immediate loss of a sense of safety and nurturance but developing long-term traumatic effects that may well greatly diminish their potential and well-being. The politics of polarity seems to gather strength, just as Tropical Storm Dorian — predicted to be a powerful hurricane soon — pitting us against each other a thousand ways each day.

The world is on fire in ways that seem to be and may well be worse than ever before — especially with the speedy unfolding of climate changes already impacting our planet and threatening to turn forests into deserts and nations into wastelands — yet it’s also true that the world is always on fire. I was thinking of how my friend Judy, a Zen master and fellow lover of the perfect bagel, once told me this over 30 years ago, so I searched for the origin of this reality and found the Ādittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, given by Buddha to 1,000 monks. Part of it reads:

Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

This makes sense to me, and yet, and yet, and yet: how do I reconcile the real fires — the deep and abiding suffering happening right now to children in detention facilities or in the Amazon to countless animals (including humans) and plants, and the roots of this suffering growing exponentially to all our detriment — with the eternal fire of being alive without getting numbly complacent (or worse, complacently cynical) or hopeless (or worse, hopelessly immobilized, kind of a trap for those of us who are privileged enough to not be in the fire at the moment)?

I don’t know. I only know how to sit here at this moment, take in the volume of cicadas, growing louder as the heat rises, and feel such heartbreak and gratitude for this world.

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Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017: Everyday Magic, Day 922

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.

The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range. 

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).

Solving the Koan

Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,

you can throw cold water on a alley cat

or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan

is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat

with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,

a koan isn’t a riddle,

a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,

but a cat and a fiddle

and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must

go haywire and be calm at once,

stare at a blank wall and contemplate

ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance

plays a part in it, but mainly

to solve a koan you must simply Be.

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.

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Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,”  and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.”  Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.

Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.