The American Chemical Society in 2018 filmed a YouTube video of four hours of a fire burning, with all the lovely attendant sounds of popping and hissing wood, snapping sparks… and overlaid it with the ethereal looking, ephemerally beautiful chemical equations that make up fire, gingerbread, Santa’s suit, reindeer, whisky, chocolate, …and Xanax, I think. This year, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has a lovely video of fiery colored jellyfish… against a soundtrack of popping, hissing fire. It is not… quite… the same. Himself calls it Sizzling Sealife, which is both horrifyingly amusing and right on the money.
…which kind of brings me to today’s poem, which is one of my all-time favorites, and which I discovered during a college English exam. I had a professor whose joy it was to introduce to us a poem during an exam and require us to write at minimum a five-paragraph in-class essay in response. For many reasons, each time I read it, I am struck anew by the aching beauty of this poem.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
“Those Winter Sundays” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, ©1966.
I learned years later that Robert Haydn was Black, and that twinged my heart even harder. Generations of men, working in silence, putting out the fires that threaten and starting the ones that warm. Misunderstood, misanthropic, perhaps, inarticulate and unstinting. Men like my Dad. Keep warm the fires of your hearth – the hearths of your family, chosen or born. Take no love for granted.