Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Burned House

Cosmos 'Sonata White'

The Burned House
A Sestina

When I wasn’t looking, the house burned down,
the one standing on the cliff’s edge that just sucked in the smoke
and died. It was tall and full of mirrored rooms, that house
I used to own, each one a tank in which some dreamfish swam in fire,
where liquid light flickered on scales of gold and copper, now white
lumps of half-burned bone, refleshed with sudden coats of ash.

How were these soul aquaria so full of life transformed to ash?
to flecks crisped from scorched love letters blown down
the drive, black ink bleeding on blue paper burned feathery white?
Your words to me, mine to you, became a script of smoke
ribboning envelopes all set alight to fuel this chemical fire
that when my head was turned burned down the house.

Blackened beams are everywhere, obscene stumps of house       
frame arching possibilities negated. Nothing made of ash
can be reused. I turn over scant remains uneaten by the fire
that swallowed up the core and spit out shingles, flying down
in flaps of flame, exhaling heat while carcinogenic smoke      
billowed from gapped window mouths in plumes of restless white.

When it happened I was working a new bed for the Sonata White
cosmos, but purity failed; fire’s finger drew a circle round the house
of C. sulphureus instead, yellow petals aster bright, tangerine smoke
drifted against the lintel wild alive, drawing all being from that ash
rich compost of dreamfish dying in char as the building came down;
now where the white rebelled I fill my hand with redgold fire.

So I come to the doorway drawn by the long gone glow of fire       
to rake through the dulled nails and teeth of white
half-melted yesterdays, look for the last inhabitants down
beneath the rotten timbers where the dead house
trembles, gives up its bones and sleeps in ash.
I pick and fuss at the ruins, filling my bag with smoke:

photographs once kodachrome stained to sepia,  smoke
colored faces turned to relics, eyeholes eaten black by fire
unreal as the fingerbone of a non-existent saint, grey as ash
and as unlikely to reignite; trinkets charred to white
misshapen in the reflux of the firehose, lockets that house
a tarnished twist of burnt hair muddied by walls long fallen down.

My insurance covers none of this lost substance, now white ash,
a total loss except for cosmos smoke, gold-warm as any fire,
banked embers over the open house of the wild that can’t burn down.

~September 2011

Posted for   FormForAll   at dVerse Poets Pub

Cosmos is a perennial or half-hardy annual in the aster family, native to Mexico, Arizona, Florida and the southern U.S. down into Central and South America. It grows in both wild and cultivated form. It is heat and drought tolerant and reseeds itself so freely some forms, including C. sulphureus, are considered a weed in some places. Cosmos bipinnatus 'Sonata White" is a pure white hybrid form, bred for the cut flower trade.

Photo: Cosmos bipinnatus "Sonata White" by Julie Anne Workman, Forde Abbey, Somerset, UK
courtesy wikipedia Par Julie Anne Workman (Travail personnel) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Time is the fire that removes substance not insurance covered while re-coating the bones with paper thin skin of ash turned to liver spotted sepia. Nicely done on the structure and function. I like it very much.

  2. very nice hedge...great textures on thehouse and the photographs...not a fire but a flood that took my grammas helps me understand the loss of memories and loss of everything....each room a fish bowl of dream fish, the bone finger of a non existent saint...nice descriptors...your final line def carries weight....

  3. Finely wrought poem, friend, re-entering the burnt house of love (or history) to examine and weigh what was lost there, and what survives in the maker's fire. A great weighing, too, of what's covered by earthly insurance and what cannot be recompensed for because it cannot be lost. The lead and end photos remind us that "the open house of the wild" "can't burn down." Loved it. - Brendan

  4. I like "nothing made of ash can be reused." Isn't that the truth? And I love the last line about the open house of the wild that can't burn down. I never thought of it that way before, but that too is true.

    I admire your ambition in writing sestinas.

  5. The first line is breathtaking and probably contains more truth than anything that I've read in a long time.

  6. Lovely form Hedge.. thanks for sharing this.

    I like the colours and charred images of the mirrored filled house burning down to ash white. Awesome writing as always ~

  7. Again you set the highest bar and excel over it. What amplifies and destroys love, how innocently or carelessly, yet somehow fated. And when we are burned to ash the wide world continues on without all our noise, unscathed by our internal drama. I was especially touched by the futility of: 'I pick and fuss at the ruins, filling my bag with smoke'. Masterfully executed with rich meaning winnowed out; you've distilled a monumental theme to its components with immense skill.

  8. Thanks all--this one came out rather quickly and imperfectly--still feels rather rough around the edges and I've done a bit of rewriting on it this morning, so your words of appreciation are all the more meaningful.

    @FB: Almost choked ya to say something good about form, eh? That's true friendship.

    @Anna: It's perhaps easier reworking this theme when you've done it so many times before--thanks so much for your insights and support.

    @B: Thanks for reading. Your long dream poem of the other day got me started thinking on all this, so thanks for that as well.

  9. Showing us all how it's can call it rough all you will my friend, but I know at the least it blows any sestina attempt this writer could craft well out of the water! Colored, textured piece with a lot of beauty to be found therein.

  10. Many thanks, Chris--I'm used to spending weeks if not months on these, so writing one in hours was scary. And I'm sure you'd do just fine with one-they have their own kind of impetus that pulls the words out.

  11. Wow~you're just getting better about fitting into this form. Your attention to detail never falters, and although it has a "dream-like" quality, it has the grit of reality about it simultaneously. What I admire most is that your poems are poetic, in an elevated way, without being anything else. I know you love Stevens, and whether that colors my thinking or not I don't know, but you outstrip Stevens in doing what he aspired to in much of your work. He wanted the music in the words, the elevation of music to ring through them, he wanted them painterly. You do that in everything, but you go beyond that. You take those "devices" of Neruda, Walcott, Heaney those metaphors of more, of myth and make poetry that speaks to the soul, that rises as a phoenix from the ashes.

  12. Thanks so much Gay. I would never say I came *anywhere* near Stevens, but I do know I don't have any musical background or artist's eye for a painting, so words are very much always words for me, and all I have to work with. I'm glad you enjoy them so much--it keeps me writing to know I can sometimes connect with people, and that they get something from it. Your article today was amazing, and someday I'm going to read all the referenced poems--it's been hectic today. And I hope things are getting better for you in the RL area.

  13. Marvelous word painting going on here. Such vivid images (half-melted yesterdays being my favorite) and solid presentation of the form.

  14. I love the language and tone you bring to the table in all of your writes. This is really, really good. Very enthralling your storytelling is. Thanks for the read, was welcomed indeed

  15. Good read and imagery. I could also feel the lost.

  16. fFilling my bag with smoke--there are many beautiful lines and images here, and ka wonderful surprising turn at end, where the bigger picture is manifested.

  17. where the dying house trembles, gives up its bones and sleeps in ash...great line, amazing write

  18. I was once told that when you are studying a painting, a masterpiece... sitting there for an extended time, you can become part of it, feeling its mood, but even more, feeling the movement of the image itself.

    Your words always elevate to that level for me. The image you paint is stunning, yet when I feel the image, there is always movement and transitioning throughout the piece. The image comes alive, actively interacting with its reader. In this one, feeling the heat of the flames, being engulfed by the smoke, stifled by the 'dustiness' of the ash.

  19. I lost the end of the comment...

    Ultimately in your piece, there is a rebirth if you will, a freedom carried on wings to new places.

  20. Let’s see if I can post a comment today …

    The craft here feels easy and effortless, though it can’t be, of course. It’s not easy to make the form feel less important than the poem with sestinas, and you do that, so I admire you and this one. You always do so well with your word choices, especially when rhyme and form are requisite. Fire, ash and smoke are beautiful in your hands. Very well done.

  21. Joy, you make the sestina look like it is easy, which I know is not even true. Beautifully crafted piece!


  22. oh wow hedge - love your sestina...i know you're not really talking about fire but we had a fire protection training in the company yesterday where the firemen made fire and we had to extinguish was frightening...high is so powerful and gets out of control so fast...and with this before my mind's eye this made your sestina even more impressive

  23. I love how each thing in this poem has a character: the house, the fire, the flowers, the yesterdays with those teeth and nails... wonderful. A well-executed sestina as well, flows very nicely around its beautiful (and destructive!) theme. :)

  24. I think this is beautiful and brilliant. Such lovely language!

  25. Took me awhile, but I got here at last, just been very busy!!

    I am reading this, then reading the email, then reading this again and trying to make sense of some of the things you point out. It will take time to grasp it all, but I will, eventually. So there will be a back and forth to examine areas in more detail. I do understand your comparison to a narrative and can see that my effort follows a very similar line. I can also see how shorter form like haiku might help with that.

    This will be an ongoing education for sure. I have added another arm to my blog where I shall only be posting short works in the hope of improving in that area.

    I bet you thought I had forgotten ;-) Just finding time for everything, nightmare.


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats

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