Jay Parini

Into the Flame
October 17, 2019 Parini Jay

Into the Flame

“The tragedy is when men are afraid of fire.”

Plato

 

And you lay for decades counting sheep
through Lackawanna nights
or reading Plato: something fiery,
deep and hot enough to melt you down,
to set the small rooms there in Scranton
all ablaze with those words.
 
You heard him overhead, your grandpa
pissing in the bucket.
So his wife was dead, and so were others
on the crooked Bricktex row,
though few believed they’d gone that way,
all munching popcorn, cookies, chips.
 
That was your life, too, except for Plato,
maybe Heraclitus, St. Teresa.
It was not enough to read Montaigne,
who made you sad and cynical and wan.
It was heat and vision you required,
in combination: body into soul.
 
Midrash was fine, but wasn’t fire.
It was exegesis, explanation,
marginal and mixed old messages.
You needed undiluted love,
real ecstasy, incarnate words
that sparked the tinder of your tender bones.
 
You asked for angels in the trees as well,
the spirit clapping as it rose through clouds
of soot and coal dust: holy bonfire.
So you crossed your legs in Buddha prayer.
You bowed, you listened as the trains slurred by.
You too might go that way yourself.
 
Or some great chariot would pick you up,
wheel you away on wilder wings.
You often thought that as you lay there,
sat or knelt, or listened in the dark
to voices calling you: away, away,
with tongues that reddened your small ears.

Jay Parini is a poet, novelist and biographer. He teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, and recently published his New and Collected Poems: 1975–2015 (Beacon).