Friday, May 3, 2019

Filled with Celestial Fire

Dear Aaron,

In the Friday evening gloaming  I sat down with an English supper—toast with butter, cheese, grapes, apples, toasted almonds, and much-less-than-a-pint of stout. As the purple drained from the sky and faded to grey, I picked up a slim volume, mossy green, inked with vines wrapped about a torch or two. It is a poetry book I purchased at a Kansas used-book store that Chelsea took me to years ago. Probably more than a decade ago, somehow. This little book is still my favourite poetry book that I own—though I dearly cherish your copy of Whittier's poems. 

It is apropos that I sat down with this very book; for it was from The School Poetry Book (published in 1911) that I copied out James Russell Lowell's The Fountain, which you memorised and quoted on my voicemail, ages ago. How I wish I still had that voicemail. I can hear your voice in my memory yet, but I miss hearing your voice in my ear.

Another poem, however, was what I read softly in the gathering dusk. This time—of day and of the year—is when I think of you the most. When the birds are making those loud, final calls for the night. The sky is waxing toward starlight, but it is still just light enough to make out the words on the page.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
         The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, 
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, 
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 

I hadn't read Thomas Gray's most well-known poem in years, certainly not since you went beyond where I can reach you. There are a lot of things I haven't read in quite some time, since before. . . Stories or poems I have long-loved for their melancholy, for their grasp of the twilight of this world. Once I read those words with a different ache—a young love crushed, a heart-sore pain. But they stab more deeply and truly now than ever they did before. Now it is not first love for another that has died and been buried in a narrow cell; now Death has marked you, my friend, for its own. You, who, like the village forefathers in the poem, seem little known, cared for, or remembered by the world.

Can storied urn or animated bust 
         Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? 
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust, 
         Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death? 
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid 
         Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire. . .

Once the Breath of Life exhales the final YHWH, once we no longer draw another, once the burning heart stops beating, what could re-animate flesh and bone? What could breathe life into dust? Only the Word of God. The ruach, the Spirit, of God (Ezekiel 37.5). You have indeed been "recalled to life"—the Spirit of God has breathed eternal life into you, on the other side. Nothing here can re-enchant those ashes that were once you. I am sick with grief at the very thought.

Yet the lines I rolled along my tongue were those last two: Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid // Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire. Wherever your earthly remnants are finally laid to rest, Ev'n in [y]our ashes live their wonted fires. People may not stream to your grave as they do for Lewis or Chaucer, Wordsworth or Gray himself—yet it will not be wholly neglected. Your heart was indeed full of celestial fire, blazing forth in kindness and generosity, in poetry and song. Even in the ashes of your life, the fire burns on in your family, in me, in others. It is the fire of creativity, of beauty, of largesse, of Love Himself, burning white hot in you.

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth 
       A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. 
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth, 
       And Melancholy mark'd him for her own. 
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere.

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