Finding Light: To Hang Fire
Before Epiphany Ignites: the art of shadow
I’ve had the great opportunity to canoe northern Canada many times, mostly in Quetico Park in northwestern Ontario above the Minnesota border. There, I’ve seen night skies scrolled with ancient scripts of aurora borealis and roiling storms unleash pent-up power by tossing moored canoes into a swamp. I’ve seen trees crack in half. I’ve also watched reflections of tomorrow paint themselves on a lake’s smooth elastic surface with pink, blue and green foreshadowing in the Poet Lakes area. A place that holds fond memories for me, not only for an extended cataract churning gold water into a foam trail, the dark eddies easing past the skies canvas, but also for the fantastic view along an extensive campsite that stretched up and down a rock ledge point. Though, that open shore also meant, little firewood.
Scavenging for starter fuel was a must if I wanted tea. So, I worked my way along the water’s edge, not going to far into the bush, and came upon a grassy knoll with a slight dip in the middle that rose into forest. No set path cut through the area, nor around it. It felt magnetic. Two flat stones, barely visible, stood like books on a shelf in the middle of the wavering grasses. There was barely space between the rocks. I leaned one over on its edge: inside was a pocket of ash. I gently replaced it, took a few steps back, and the fire pit disappeared into the natural setting. I walked back to our isolated tourist camp with fire suspended in my head. And without wood for tea.
As a student, I was taught to look at the way artists use light and shadow. Many of my classes included writing from artwork; some lessons took place in museums. I also liked to travel, and have been to many galleries on many continents. That said, I like writers that know how to hang fire.
What do I mean by “Hang Fire”? One example of this that I find astounding in its detailed, yet simple light, is Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, a non-political novel about the effects of politics on Cyprus during the 50’s. To me, this work smoulders with character, mostly of the
native Cypriots, but also of the colonizing Brits. These two together become the flame and fan of the story as a fuse of dissent slowly ignites. Bombs are eventually set off, and all the good intentions of diplomatic public relations can not control it. This is typical of history, no matter
race, colour, or creed. Yet Durrell’s story begins softly. In the first section, ‘Toward an Eastern Landfall’ he immediately sets up his theme in the first paragraph with the narrator on a ship leaving Venice for Cyprus. We are given a description of the journey through the eyes of the
writer/diplomat. It reads like a Renaissance landscape.
“Journey’s, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances con-tribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will — whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures — and the best of them
lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well.”
In this scene, the ship is motoring through reflections of ’steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like fragments of some stained-glass window…’ It is a story of reflection in both senses, the visual and the thoughtful. It is about the pitfalls of politics and their best intentions, and also about the rewards of travel, that it can be ‘one of the most rewarding forms of introspection… // These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn…’ he says. Indeed.
The writing is full of anticipation like waiting for a lightning strike, perhaps out of a blue sky. More to the point, it is a state of waiting for inspiration to release from clouds cracked open; a rise of dampness from a mouldering wood pile under a tree, smoke from a yet-to-be-stoked fire.
It’s not until the end of the work that the thunder of unrest, sealed in the hearts of Cypriot youth, splits open.
Another example of a work that Hang’s fire, is a poem by John B. Lee, In the Same Breath. This work can be found in Cranberry Tree Press’s Ellipsis, 2008, edited by Lenore Lang and Laurie Smith. I had the pleasure of judging this contest/anthology and was astounded at how that
particular poem moved me through multiple readings. The genial treatment of the language with it’s traces of light on shadow, as four people sit silently watching night descend from a cottage deck intrigued me by it’s slow winding-down of an evening. The narrator fluidly describes the
sources of light and shadow:
The atmospheric light trail in the over-arching blackness of a late night sky
with the close-at-hand milk-spill of a pole lamp
lit to solve the shadow fear of a shaded hill
where a stringer stumbled in stair fractions down
and also the sand halo of a beach bulb
with it’s amber glow
and the gauzy buzz of mayfly clouds
If Durrell’s writing suggests the Renaissance, then Lee’s is certainly a PRISM literary style (Post-Realism/Impressionistic Style of Modernism) where conventional forms are blended with little to no punctuation. It suggests a rebellion against grammar’s usual form of control and
structure. Language supports itself. Lee offers green and crimson water beacons — not quite as strongly symbolic as Fitzgerald’s green light in Gatsby perhaps, but poignant all the same — the moon and the mist, smudges of meteors. And it is not only the ‘touched’ dreaming of the four
‘watchers’ nor the idea of the wonders of language, of birds as they ‘hold singing’ — that the author juxtaposes with silence — that draws my awe. Light has been slowly diminished in its intensity. I can feel the watchers as they sit in silence, comfortable with each others small
presence in nature. It is as if they finally all remember to breathe, realizing that the day has completely drained away. There are peripheral sources of light, both natural, and manmade. But the reader is in the dark with a single, central bulb glowing out over the beach, a proverbial
candle in the window, or last ray of sunset after the evening rain has past. This amber glow shines like humanity. We have become adjusted to the dark; old friends, comfortable in the silence of inner light.
To Hang Fire
ki July 10 / 2021