Sunday, May 8, 2016
Healing from the Ashes - Poetry & Art
When Ariyana Gibbon invited us, the Village Poets, to a special poetry reading at the Healing from the Ashes exhibition she organized in Sunland to benefit the victims of Station Fire on October 17, 2010, I did not have much to show for it. I had written one haiku about wildfires in general and one poem about my experience of watching the danger approach, anxiously waiting for the wildfire to leave the slopes of my mountains, where it just sat for days on end:
The flames are closer and closer,
the air thick with smoke, dense
with the noise of helicopter engines.
I have never faced such danger.
Pacing around the house, I start
collecting papers, packing suitcases
of photo albums that nobody looks at,
so old, they show us two lifetimes earlier
in an antique glow of happiness.
Neighbors sit on their front porches
with binoculars, watching the spectacle
unfolding, a reality show without a screen.
They laugh and drink, eat barbecued
hamburgers and sausages saturated with
the smoky flavor of California fire season.
I can’t stand the wait. I examine the contents
of my house, gather things I cannot lose,
say farewell to those that may burn.
I give up my claim over shelves of books,
roses in gilded frames, fine china, music boxes –
my treasures become worthless bulk.
The flames shoot higher, the fire refuses
to budge under the aerial assault, stubbornly
dwells on the slopes illuminated in red at one a.m.
Next morning, my car sinks low in the driveway
under the weight of papers I packed to save.
Someone else will burn them after I’m gone.
A neighbor’s little daughter walks by,
looks at the heavy suitcases and asks,
“Mommy, is Barbie going on vacation?”
There was also a small haiku and a tanka based on mosaics from the fire that I found on the project's website:
sinks into the ashes -
red flames lick the sky
smoke thickens into darkness
a butterfly soars
ascending into turquoise
my future brightens
Not much to it, nothing tragic. It is not a surprise, then, that the Poet Laureate of our community was not the featured poet at the “Healing from the Ashes.” That title went to Jane Fontana who lived much closer to the fires and eloquently described the experience of loss and recovery. She did not lose her own home, but her neighbors did: only two houses survived on her street. Her poems were compassionate and inspired.
After walking into the exhibit on Foothill Blvd. and touring the wonderful exhibition, I was inspired, too. I was struck by the beauty and expressiveness of artwork made lovingly from remnants found in the fire – mosaics from shards of china, reliefs including burnt clocks and lamps, curio cabinets of little figurines, paintings… Our neighbors experienced real loss, and it was transformed, in that impromptu gallery, into poignant art.
On one wall was a large metal clock, burnt, with markers for the hours, but no hands. “Time stopped for this clock,” I thought as I read the title – Sun Dial by Ruth Dutoit. It spoke to me and in 10 minutes I wrote a new poem. I like the idea of a clock with no hands to show time. A French experimental filmmaker Agnes Varda made a documentary about The Gleaners, talking to those who gather and recycle things, and showcasing her own collection of her own recycled, handless, timeless clocks.
There’s a point to this. I have one clock like that at home, dark rectangular frame with mother-of-pearl inlay in the style found in India or the Middle East, it sits on my shelf to remind me of timelessness, eternity, so I would not rush around too fast, try to do too many things at once. “There’s time, there’s still time” – it tells me… Ruth Dutoit called hers The Sun Dial and there’s a small marker, or dial, on her disc, where time is measured by metal wings:
The sundial glows
in a sunset of memory.
freeze in a nanosecond
of fiery beauty
We measure loss
in dragonfly wings,
in crystal shadows,
filled to the brim
before our time stops,
it too stops.
Another image that started "speaking" to me was a mosaic of a fames-spewing dragon by Robin M. Cohen. Unfortunately for the auction, it fell off its mounting on the wall and was damaged at the time of the exhibition. Cohen's mosaic was quite ornamental, almost too pretty for its materials of such tragic provenance. It resulted in a decoratively expressive, yet uncomplicated poem:
burn, burn, burn,
the horizon disappears
in scarlet light
burn, burn, burn
the air shimmers,
the dragon’s here
watch the dragon
the creature of change
the beast of renewal
transforms our lives
by pain, by loss, in fear
the dragon sings out
burn, burn, burn
flames lick the rooftops
with fierce kindness
to destroy and renew
burn, burn, burn
Finally, I came across a larger artwork by the exhibition's organizer, Ariyana Gibbon. She made several mosaics on canvas for this project and one of her pieces reminded me of something I knew, both pleasurable and painful. I went home before I was able to write the following poem, stringing a necklace of tearful memories from 1975 and 1999...
FROM THE ASHES
~ to Ariyana Gibbon
The mosaic tears glow
and flow In indigo sky
crystallizing in memory
into soft petals of ash
blanketing my driveway
after the mountains
were bright with fire
for weeks, hot-spots shining
in charcoal darkness
like an ocean-liner’s lights
on the Bosphorus,
on the way to the Black Sea.
The mosaic patterns
measure space in echoes
of arabesques on the ceiling –
the Blue Mosque
in Istanbul made me
dizzy with delight.
Wait, I saw such tears elsewhere –
Oh, it was that lapis-lazuli
silver necklace I admired
in a Grand Canyon shop
He bought too late
to save what was beyond repair.
The mosaic teardrops fall,
ashen, each one shattered already,
made of old pain that does not go away,
or cry itself out. It just sits there,
a boulder on the highway
damaged by rockslide,
a burnt-out shell of a house,
lost to flames.
Shards of broken china
glow against dark velvet –
a treasure found in ashes,
held together by a thin ribbon
of gold paint, a promise of sunrise,
at the edge of indigo sky.