I wrote to you about the story of the cat at the heart of this photograph, but why is the cat wreathed in flames, and why don’t they consume him? I’ll respond to that now, not with pretended analysis or explanation, but with a kind of “Biography of Fire.”
In my early twenties, I wrote and published this poem called “The Child” [with audio file of LR reading the poem]:
He had to learn the way a staircase
climbs without moving.
He knew the huge trees
talked together ‑‑ not knowing particular
signs, but understanding
their hard, isolate trunks,
their high branches shaking before a rain.
And then, one autumn night, to walk out
beyond the people’s voices,
the hide‑and‑seek and statues,
beyond the brick houses, into the field
where wind spins a dancer out of dead leaves,
where two cats chase moths through milkweed
and bracken, mingling with the black
scraping of crickets.
The half‑moon rising behind him,
he sat down, shyly, in damp grass and thistles.
He took out his book of matches.
And he burned his hand in the field, to seal
his marriage to the several fires
that cannot be touched for long.
I also wrote another “fiery” poem in my early Twenties, that was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and then gave its title, “The Burning-Ground,” to a chapbook of my poems. The poem is dedicated “to the Muse,” the “you” of the poem. It’s introduced with an excerpt from a Hindu “Hymn to Kali,” which could just as well be be part of a hymn to the Muse:
Because Thou lovest the Burning‑ground,
I have made a Burning‑ground of my heart ‑-
That Thou, dark one, haunter of the Burning‑ground,
Mayest dance Thy eternal dance.
The singer (and Reverend of his own church in Memphis) Al Green, talking about what it takes to sing gospel music, said: “You either have the spiritual fire or you don’t.” And I would bet that whatever you believe or think that you believe, a part of you knows what that fire is.
When I was about ten, I had this experience:
I was standing in the backyard of a friend’s house, on the edge of a small wooded, swampy area between our block and a major street in Detroit. I was watching an ash can fire in the yard. People nowadays don’t even know what an ash can was, and I haven’t been able to find a picture of one on the Internet. Imagine a typical aluminum trash can, but made of cyclone fencing instead of solid metal, so that the barrel was a kind of open metal mesh. You would put your burnable trash into paper grocery bags, stuff them into the can, put on the lid, and then set the trash on fire and let it burn down to ash, which would then blow away. Right, there’s no way that such a practice would be allowed these days. Talk about a fire hazard.
But as I watched the fire blazing and dancing about, a kind of slowly flowing, pouring stream of fire reached toward me across the space of the yard — and entered my head through my eyes. No, I wasn’t merely seeing it, but rather being entered by and immersed in it, without feeling pain or being burned. I felt more intensely, fully, and expansively alive. For the minutes that this lasted (I don’t know how many), my sight wasn’t only physical sight, but a living, palpable vision, a communion with the spirit of the fire.
For some years, I neither read nor knew of an experience quite like that, although I read about religious and mystical experiences. Then I seemed to recognize it in these lines from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro’ the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
And, as you may already be thinking, though it didn’t occur to me until years after that backyard experience, there had been someone else who had a far more exalted, but similar experience, described in Exodus 3:1-4:
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.
2 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.
3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
4 And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
My experience with that backyard stream of fire had profound, lasting effects on me, and on my vision of art and its purpose and power. For now, very soon, I’ll continue this story with a kind of biography of fire within this Biography of Fire, tracing the title and core of the movie Chariots of Fire (which most of you probably know and some of you may love as I do) back to its divine and fiery source.
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .