When summer heat gives way to cold and ice
and village folk begin the winter war
of fixing window-panes and checking twice
equipment, grains, and jars they have in store,
they most concern themselves with what device
they can assure their fires and needs therefore.
New autumn fires are newly made, like cider,
and each will cast its spell like the web of a spider.
In cords and tons and bundles and gallons, fire
is weighed; and these are bought with love and sweat.
At times, denial of the heart’s desire
is how the village folk must pay the debt
contracted woods or careless sons require.
New Fire will not be stoked with old regret,
so northern folk must pay whatever price
for coals to fight the winter wind and ice.
Wherever fire as flame or heart reposes—
in air or stone, in human tongues or loins,
in music, stars, or eyes—it presupposes
that mystic sensibility conjoins
with every soul that Wisdom predisposes
to value Mystery far more than coins.
Around the World new autumn fires are cherished
and serenaded ere their light has perished.
It’s known to some there burns in Francesville
a sight that never yet a bard has sung.
It comes at night to mingle at its will
with kindred flames—of spirit, eye, or tongue.
It roams the Hemisphere and would fulfill,
like Artic tern, the Mystery that’s sprung
from the Eternal Flame. When it appears
a parliament is called of fire . . . and tears.
A conjured, giant candlelight shines true
based on the merits of old friends whose grace
and fire confirms to them what they must do.
One night they went to their accustomed place,
four lifelong friends no strangers ever knew.
They built a fire as blue and deep as space.
Like brilliant meteors signaling the end of Fall
these friends consumed themselves and spirits all.
Swamp Gas, the cook, proved it is surely so,
as often tis said, that flame will take to flame.
The kitchen seemed to make him surly, though
Pete Boggs, his cousin, claimed he was the same
before. His scathing tongue he could let go
at foe or friend—for spite or slight, the same.
But when to secret woods did come these four,
they mined from brimstone ways rare diamond ore.
The Beetle found at Lucy Flavin’s farm
his cousin Steepleglow, and quit the fields;
he cursed the rising sun and female charms
and never loved another. Night would yield
his only respite from the certain harm
he vowed to spread by day—the only shield
against his steady pain. In hidden woods
he built the only fires that did him good.
The spirit of Yukon Jack inspired his mates
and drew them into circles that made them hot
for love and quickening joy, and prone to hates
no more—albeit of late, with friends or not,
mercurial Jack did quarrel with the Fates:
It seemed some unknown substance the air had got
was spoiling commerce folks tried to transact
by messing with the mind of Yukon Jack.
‘Twas known amongst the village folk that Flint
had fists more hard than steel, and he was quick
to strike the blow and say just what he meant.
Yet gentle Flint was never known to kick
a man when he was down. Much time was spent
–and much more gold!—to change Flint from the hick
he was, but Flint smoked pot and drank more beers
and raised more hell than all his village peers.
They came together in the woods to start
the winter war of ice and fire. They charged
the wind with ill intent, they had no heart
for levity; they thought the moon enlarged;
they found that whining dogs would not depart.
And so, they plied their fire with logs, and barged
forth into night in search of any light
to guide them through a hellish wintry night.
Two bottles in, they ceased to talk of things
mundane. Their liquored minds revered the old
forgotten flames whose unremembered stings
would not impede the war against the cold—
a cold, of late, more dreadful than the wings
of Death. Against which dread stood up the bold
and honest Flint who put them on to kill
or figure out the light of Francesville.
When he had ended, Yukon Jack arose.
First looking long at galaxies above,
and then at one familiar star, he closed
his eyes, and with his body made sweet love
to every wind that tantalized his nose.
Drawn towards the fire, as her mate is to a dove,
the dancing Yukon Jack could feel the light
and name the wrong bold Flint had spoke that night.
“How darkly must we dance, dear Flint, to dream
a winter colder than the Spring can thaw?
As dark as Orpheus crying out alarm?
Can lyrics melt the grip of Winter’s Claw
that do not also make the heart more warm?
The aches we feel within this cold can gnaw
like broken love, or vicious costs incurred,
or lies the like of which we have not heard.
“Not just the hailstorms of a Summer’s smile
nor sonic booms of falling star, the heat
of Love comes from a sun that shows no guile,
that stops upon the cusp and won’t repeat
where Summer’s gone or why the measuring dial
shows equal night and day or why defeat
provides a way to hope, or why sweet Youth
must fade before we grasp the whole of Truth.
“Not just some strychnine fantasies from saints
whose bones grow weary from their brooding minds,
Love’s Fire is darker than a Scot’s complaint
when Picts have done him wrong. But when refined
by vows that Fire becomes a Scot’s constraint:
A Bucknell’s Fair from Fair does not decline
though jealous rapiers furnish up his heart
or sparrows die while God and mates depart.
“How darkly must we dance, dear Flint, to plot
Black Fortune’s end? Must we hold up to scorn
reflected candle-light which is not hot?
Or speak more ill of dead John Barleycorn?
Or look into the soul of Fire and not
find supernatural tongues and be reborn?
And is not Love the grandest Mystery,
Don’t souls burn out without Its potency?
“The love I’ve known has played no poet’s fool—
it’s love too hot to be contained in air;
it’s love as old as Virgo’s sigh and Rule
of Law and fountains of light in angels’ care.
The love I’ve known has left me with a pool
of tears too deep for words, and with despair
too harsh for song. But something in its mood
however weird woos me to Right and Good.
“And yet, old friends, not one of us can swear
there’s no bad omen in this early cold!
I say, good Flint, we have no fires to spare!
Not this most gentle one these few hours old,
not Old Fire Swamp Gas and Beetle in June prepare;
not flowery fires we find in legends told.
And who’s to say no Fire can patch with Hope
this sorrow-strain with which we now must cope?
“We know which firestorms stir in us pure lust,
and how they rage, to what degree they broil
us–bellies, eyes, and hearts. And if we must
make ash of tender dreams by time despoiled,
we know from dust we come and unto dust
return. November’s cold may be the foil
to such a storm as Earth collects when Time’s
reduced all reason to a tinsel rhyme.
“Let’s haste to Francesville for Wisdom’s sake
with aching questions on our lips. Is Death
so sweet that He can soothe all wounds and make
an end to Mysteries? Whence comes the Breath
of Life that from our hearts and pens now shakes
loose legends for our deeds? Is now the death
of yesterday, against the pitiless pitch
the lamp that’s filled and waiting in the niche?”
The silence after Yukon Jack had finished
was long. His words had blended with the power
of blazing fire. Their doleful eyes replenished
by canteen spirits, they looked for near an hour
at myriad visions flickering undiminished.
And what they thought they saw then made them cower
from fear that only time could put to rest
the visions firing up some sacred quest.
Sometimes the weight of darkness in the sky
can suffocate the fires that fair companions
attend; and try as hard as they can try,
they cannot bear the artic-cold expansion
of their fear, nor can they yield and die
like fading winds bellowing in distant canyons.
Marauding Fates and stagnant buried fear
can make a fire-place of the atmosphere.
And so it was, pursuing Magic’s lure,
four friends arrived at Francesville to dare
by means as mean as Fate to seek a cure.
The tender heart the fatal four did share
could not ignore what they could not endure.
For warmth, like twilight’s gentle ebb (compared
to sunset’s golden fire), to soothe cold bones
they vowed to search in wind-songs and in stones.
The light they saw that night is said to be
as perfect as the force of Nature’s Law.
It’s said that some have eyes but cannot see;
and some, it’s said, have hearts too cold to thaw.
But those who see and do not turn to flee,
they say, will be transformed by what they saw.
Four friends beheld at Francesville a weird
alluring light, and since have disappeared.
If Swamp Gas, Beetle, Yukon Jack, and Flint
complained that night to their companion stars,
those spinning gems refuse to say. They went
despite they knew how cold companion stars
can be. The winter cold did not relent;
they say it opened wounds and deepened scars;
it was, they say, the coldest winter known,
as cold as fires that Death attends alone.
There comes a time, it’s said, when God seems dead
(or more asleep or swooning in a dream),
and all that breathe and sleep on earthen bed
become as cold as ice. Without a beam
of light that spins into a point and streams
into Infinity and fills the head
of God with spirituals, Eternity
would shroud us in the dark of Mystery.
Old Fire is older than the earth and time.
It’s older than the Mother Muse or sorrows
kept in mothers’ breasts. If it can climb
inside of time and challenge time’s tomorrows,
the place and hour become as Beauty Sublime:
A stitch in time, the final end to horrors
one hopes, a herald of Millennium,
the calm restraining God’s delirium.
Despite the cold, and snuffed out lives, or worse
the season might commit, the hunting buck
and laughing roe, just like the careful nurse
and playing child, do not run out of luck
or songs to sing. As in the childlike verse
of poets graced with colors they have plucked
from Nature, Blooming Colors live in fires
the Sacred Heart throughout all time desires.
And so it passed, four friends were gone. Their wrongs
and love, like embers smoldering in a pit,
remembered by sad fireside friends. How long
will names survive, how long will fires stay lit?
As long as one among the four belongs
to Spirits entered in his mind and wit
that night he gazed upon The Golden Light
of Francesville and chose to drop from sight.
That year in Francesville a winter came
when all the village talk was gloom and doom;
all stomachs, hearts, and eyes devoid of flame;
some friends were lost and some betrayed; no womb
was full, no grave was dug. But fires the same
as setting moons found full at dawn now loom
in countless eyes throughout the Hemisphere—
eyes sure that Love is stronger than all fear.
By Thomas Johnson
Thomas Johnson was born Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1966 he received a B.A. in Classical Studies from then-Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana; in 1968 he received an M.A. in English from UNC-G, and he continued graduate studies in English literature and history at Syracuse and Wake Forest Universities. In 1992 he published a collection of poems entitled “If Rainbows Promise Not in Vain.” In 2009 he retired from then-Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida after serving for 26 years as an instructor of English and humanities.