Our Burning World – Poems and Other Writing by W.S. Merwin, Barry Lopez, Kim Stafford and Katie Farris

Smoke billows upwards from a planned ignition by firefighters tackling the Donnie Creek Complex wildfire south of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada June 3, 2023. B.C. Wildfire Service/Handout via REUTERS.

In this trembling moment, with light armor under several flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world.

Barry Lopez from the Foreword to Earthy Love – Stories of Intimacy and Devotion from Orion magazine, 2020

When I read this passage by the late great American writer Barry Lopez a few months ago I was filled with a wild kind of joy, not for the horrors he describes, but by its suggestive question he asks at the end of it. A question that opens up the possibility of saying yes to love, to this earth, instead of choosing despair. This choice I can make to keep loving this burning world and make a difference in slowing our approach to the cliff of planetary disaster.

I also thought of three other poems calling out to a burning world, poems I cherish and which remind me not to give hope for our beleagured planet. And it seems timely, sadly, to feature poems about a burning world when record-setting Canadian wildfires are creating unprecendented smokey conditions in major North American cities.

This poem below by American poet Katiie Farris I have featured before but because it is the most recent it came to heart first. This gorgeous poem, gorgeous hymn to loving this world in spite of everything, even her cancer.

Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World

To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.

The body bald,
cancerous but still
beautiful enough to
imagine living the body
washing the body
replacing a loose front
porch step the body chewing
what it takes to keep a body

This scene has a tune
a language I can read a door
I cannot close I stand
within its wedge
a shield.

Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world,
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

Katie Farris from STANDING IN THE FOREST OF BEING ALIVE, Alice James Books, 2023

Katie Farris first published this poem on Facebook in 2020 during her treatment for breast cancer.  It is now the opening poem in her new poetry collection STANDING IN THE FOREST OF BEING ALIVE. This poem: what a way to face up to her cancer. Recently she wrote an op ed piece on this cancer journey and how dreams helped her ask for a mammogram. That identified  breast cancer and after a masectomy, when radiation was suggested, another dream helped her to say yes. And during all this towards the end she developed a heart condition.

When I  saw her at the American Writers Program (AWP) Conference in Seattle in March she had a walking boot on one of her legs and her husband, the American Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky was wheeling her to her sessions by wheel chair. And in spite of all this she had time for anyone to come by and chat; her face welcoming and usually accompanied with a smile. I think of her as the unstoppable Katie Farris. She  offers more than poems of love to a burning world. She offers an example of how to keep saying yes to life in spite of everything.

This poem below by the late W.S. Merwin is a much celebrated. And it was a favorite of my mentor, the late Patrick Lane. The indomitable sense in this poem of life continuing and going on in spite of everything. Even though the whole world is burning.

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

W.S. Merwin from The Shadow of Sirius, Copper Canyon Press, 2008

I have met the American poet Kim Stafford, son of the legendary poet Bill Stafford, a few times. Last time, briefly, at this year’s AWP  where he handed me a small chapbook, Meditations & Poems for Writers. A small gem. Thank you Kim.

I discovered the poem of his below a number of years ago and cherished it then. It so perfectly fits with the theme of this blog post. And gets to the point right away: Whereas the world is a house on fire:

Proclamation for Peace

   Whereas the world is a house on fire;
Whereas the nations are filled with shouting;
Whereas hope seems small, sometimes
      a single bird on a wire
      left: by migration behind.
Whereas kindness is seldom in the news
      and peace an abstraction
      while war is real;
Whereas words are all I have;
Whereas my life is short;
Whereas I am afraid;
Whereas I am free—despite all
      fire and anger and fear;
Be it therefore resolved a song
      shall be my calling— a song
      not yet made shall be vocation
      and peaceful words the work
      of my remaining days.

Kim Stafford from Wild Honey, Tough Salt, Red Hen Press, 2019

I so appreciate how Kim’s poem seems to sum up a way of living, a way of staying emotionally healthy that seems a trademark of these four inspirational poems. (To see some more poems and some prompts of Kim’s please click here.)

This post started with Barry Lopez’s quote that ends in a question: is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world? I think this is his way, by the way of asking a question, for us to say yes. And I am grateful for this chance to add my yes to those of the four inspirational writers featured here. Thank you Barry, Katie, William and Kim.


  1. Peggy Rosenthal
    Posted July 1, 2023 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you for these poems—which give me hope in the midst of the gray air coming from Canada & clouding western New York, where I live. And hope in the midst of fear for my sister-in-law as she begins what I pray is recovery from surgery for colon cancer 2 days ago.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted July 1, 2023 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Dear Peggy: Just arrived by boat to La Conner Washington a lovely seaside town in northern WA state. Saw your comment. This need to remember beauty and joy in spite of, in spite of things like your sister-in-law’s cancer. So much love to you on Canada Day. But not celebrating the smoke!

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *