A FEW WORDS ON THE CONTINENT OF FIRE
Updated: Apr 15
As I said in my first blog, like most writers, I write for myself. But once I publish something it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to whomever reads it. If I intended one meaning, and the reader sees something else, that’s more than valid. It’s good. If I ever write anything meaningful, it will mean more than I’ll ever know. (Give me a call: we can talk about the 20th century philosopher, Michael Polanyi).
On the other hand, I reserve the right to figure out my own poems, as much as the next reader. So, in the coming weeks, I’ll offer a few words about each of the poems in Chasing the Dragon. If those words come between you and the poems, stop reading these blogs. But perhaps the blogs will offer you a slightly different way at looking at them.
For example, I thought I knew what I meant when I wrote The Continent of Fire. The title is from a First Nation’s expression for the one continent that is both North America and South America. We are all Americans, not just those of us who live in the United States but all of us from Alaska through Mexico to the tierra del Fuego.
Okay, that’s simple enough. The epigram “everything that rises must converge,” is from the 20th century Jesuit paleologist, Teilhard de Chardin, although it comes to me through the seriously politically incorrect Southern Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor (who just might be Irish American). I thought I knew what it meant, and I thought it tied the whole poem together. It was added much after the poem was written.
The poem was written in three parts. It weaves together three climbing stories: one on the Blue Ridge, near Charlottesville, VA, where I went to school for seven years (slow learner); one in Ireland; and the third in the Andes, overlooking Machu Picchu.
The first climb, up Humpback Rocks is easy for me to understand, I’ve done that hike dozens of times. I tried to capture it in its most physical form: the melting snow, the mud, the bare trees. It’s only in the last line that I use a word that has spiritual significance: eternity. But if you want, you can let the spiritual significance slide. I could just be saying that these mountains have been here forever.
Of course, I actually meant “eternity” with all its Christian baggage. As you’ll see later in the poems, whatever spiritual impulse I have is pretty much pantheistic. Only through creation, through the physical, can we hope to find the eternal. The Church tries to teach me that I should see God in the face of my fellow man, but, like a lot of things the Church tries to teach me, that’s a stretch. I can see the grandeur of God in the ungainly flight of an egret or the high-pitched hunting cry of an osprey, but in my fellow man?
All of which does not prevent me from being a fairly conventional, practicing Catholic as the second section of the poem suggests. I’m accustomed to regarding life as a pilgrimage, in my particular case, a pilgrimage of grace. The abbey where the pilgrimage of Croagh Patrick begins is only a few miles from the mountain. We don’t need to go to Santiago to Compostela or to the Holy Land. Paddy Cavanaugh, a drunk and a nuisance, who you’ll meet if you continue this pilgrimage with me, used to say that the proper territory for a poet was his own parish.
So, I think I understand the first two movements of the poem. It’s the third that I don’t finally understand, which means that it’s probably the most important for me to pay attention to.
I remember the physical details very clearly. I had gone to Machu Picchu the day before, but people at the hotel told me I could get an even more spectacular view from the cliffs opposite. I started the climb with Tomas, a member of the wedding party I was traveling with. The “climb” if I can even use the expression, was very easy: someone had nailed ladders into the rock. Granted, it was a very long ladder going up into the heights. But the view was worth it.
Until I looked down. There was Tomas halfway up, halfway between earth and heaven, not touching dirt nowhere, scared out of his wits.
I have learned that the most worthless thing to say in a moment like this is “don’t be afraid.” If someone is afraid, he is. So, I had to climb down, passing Tomas as he clutched onto the ladder (which meant I had to leave the ladder and trust the rocks). I got below him, and coached him down.
At the foot of the ladder, we met a Quechua couple ready to begin their ascent. They helped me get Tomas down, and, being Quechua, they offered the hospitality of their coca bag: “La hoya no es una droga.”
Tomas regained his composure and we returned to the hotel, and they began to climb.
I have no notion what Machu Picchu means to the Quechua people, but I’m Celtic enough to know a “thin place” when I see one: a place where earth and heaven can come together, where all things are possible (yeah, there’s a poem on thin places in the book as well).
I think when I added the epigram “everything that rises must converge,” I meant something like if we can all just ascend a little together, we can find that we aren’t that far apart. Buy me a cup of coffee and I’ll bore you with a lecture about how Sufi mysticism blends with medieval Catholic mysticism.
But yesterday, a friend placed a simple card literally on my lunch tray: Save Mother Earth. Yes, a spiritual communion would be wonderful, but now I’m more inclined to see the poem as a cry for the earth itself, a realization that the entire earth is a thin place where earth and heaven can converge and all good things can be possible.
But only if the earth itself endures, something we can no longer take for granted. A poem I wrote years ago presents itself with new meaning. Things change.