MacEwen and Gilbert – Praise in a World Still Burning

Deadly fire at Lac-Magantic, Quebec on July 6th, 2013.(Photo credit:François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images.)

Deadly fire at Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6th, 2013.(Photo credit:François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images.)

Worlds collide, words collide – the smoke that stays in the mouth, the eyes, from the Lac-Megantic oil-tanker train wreck and explosion in Quebec; and here in Port Townsend, Washington, the different smoke of morning mist on the tongue.

It will burn away the young woman says who hands me my morning coffee. What will burn away I wonder? The mist? The memory of fire and smoke in a small Quebec town or from the other fires burning in memory – Dresden, Hamburg, London, Smyrna, Syria, Egypt and Istanbul?

Fires burning. Mist burning. And a white horse steps from the sea out of a book of poems. And a healing beauty reasserts itself in the world. This mysterious and transcendent white horse from a poem of the same name by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941 – 1987).

And more mysterious, healing-beauty’s twin appears as well in that poem. The terrible beauty: the beauty my mind sees this morning – gouts of flame painting a sky into holes hope and hearts can vanish inside. Fearful, awe-full beauty.

Here is MacEwen’s poem. And in it the beauty of a white horse and worse, the terrible beauty of burnt ivory crafted by bombs. A world still burning. The baleful beauty of a bomb and its burning; and yet also the life-giving burning of the sun:

The White Horse

This is the first horse to come into the world;
It heaved itself out of the sea to stand now
In a field of sunlight,
Its eyes huge with joy and wisdom,
Its head turning towards you, wondering
                      why you are wondering

And how it comes about that you are here, when
Shrapnel from wars whose causes are forgotten
Has invaded the soft legs and bellies of children
And phosphorous bombs have made burnt ivory
                      of the limbs of lovers
In Ireland and Lebanon and all the broken countries
Of the universe where this horse has never been.

You reach out your hand to touch it, and
This is the first time you have ever seen
                       your hand, as it is also
The first time you have smelled the blue fire
Within a stone, or tasted blue air, or
Heard what the sea says when it talks in its sleep.

But hasn’t the brilliant end come, you wonder,
And isn’t the world still burning?

Go and tell this: It is morning,
And this horse with a mane the colour of seafoam
Is the first horse that the world has ever seen,
The white horse which stands now watching you
Across this field of endless sunlight.

from Gwendolyn MacEwen, Volume Two, The Later Years, Exile Editions, 2002

Ah, the world still burning. Beauty burning. One that gives real light and one that finally, takes light away. One burning, the white horse in a field of sunlight, that deepens our vision. And if we dare touch it we see everything as if for the first time. Even our hand. So familiar. Even a rock, suddenly, now, we can smell its aroma of blue fire. But how the dark beauty of a bomb’s red glare, or of a train wreck’s godless fire, makes me want to shut my eyes, pull back my hand from touching anything.

And today during my writing session at Centrum’s Writing Conference in Port Townsend led by the irrepressible American poet Dorianne Laux, one of fellow participants mentioned another poem, another poet and I was reminded again to keep my eyes and hands open. To risk delight in spite of life’s dire moments.

Here is that poem by the incomparable american poet, Jack Gilbert (1925 – 2012):

A Brief For the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
Are not starving someplace, they are starving
Somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that is what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
Be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
Be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
At the fountain are laughing together between
The suffering they have known and the awfulness
In their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
In the village is very sick. There is laughter
Every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
And the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
But not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
The stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
Furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
Measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of the small ship
Anchored late at night in the tiny port
Looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
Is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
Comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
All the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven, Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2005

Can I have the stubborness to accept my gladness in the ruthless furnance of the world?  Can I  give thanks that the end had magnitude for those who were killed literally by a fire caused by a locomotive and its tanker cars at Lac-Magantic? I will ask these questions but not answer them, yet.

What I will do is remember there is laughter somewhere in the world right now as well as unimaginable sorrow.  I will read poems that will not let sorrow have the last word. I will write my own poems of fire but of both fires – the one that destroys a town, a world, but also the one that brings warmth, where, around it, there are men and woman and children – and laughter. I will try to find a way to touch and be touched by all the world’s burning surfaces.


  1. Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks you Richard for your wonderful blog! You not only introduce great poems and poets but also give us a clear vision into the poems, into life! Much gratitude to you for your time and energy that goes into your blog!


  2. Richard
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Joan. It is rewarding doing the blog but commentslike yours make it more so!

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