For David, For Gaia
I wrote this poemessay over the course of the last year. I was inspired by a prompt from the ever-incredible Dark Mountain publication for their Fire anthology, and also by a series of unfortunate events that unfortunately continue to unfold as if Lemony Snicket had backtaxes and needed to knock out a few more niche bestsellers. Thats the world we live in, I guess.
I kept working on it and also procrastinating, or ruminating on it, so I missed the submission deadline. I posted it to this blog instead, then took it down and reworked it and submitted it to a different publication, which I didn't get into, and then regretted having taken it down from here. But I wanted to submit it to Ploughshares, which I love, so I worked on it again in a series of ruminative pauses and fervent, manic poetic typings. I then decided it had some power and needed to be out in the world! I was very excited but through some unfortunate miracle I missed the submission deadline again. I was furious at myself. I continued to work on it. I submitted it as evidence that I write, even though Ive never been published for it, for a writing residency. I felt proud of it for a moment and decided I would begin a new poemessay, that this one had taught me enough, for now. That continuing to revisit and revise and riff was going somewhere, but alone, instead of with readers, companions. Frodo wears the ring.
So here it is again. I'm leaving it here, deadlines are irrelevant.
___________________________________________________________________________________________ For David, For Gaia
Mythic sensibilities drip off of leaves, and hover cloudlike in misty precipitation in a New England wood. Ash trees and birch trees, their former crowns and bangles of yellow are rubbing together in the wet loam, edges melted and undone as if in a crucible over the furnace, but soon will dry up, separate once more, and finish to die.
Their lives begin in water and yes, even in death they sop and squish, but their skeletons and paper skins are written into the law of potential flame. A matchlight, a well-timed whisper of breeze, that kind that makes you turn your head alone in the harmony of the woods and listen for the messages...
“I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide.” On Saturday, April 14th, 2018, a man burned himself to death quietly. Our collective response equates to a mildly nervous shrug, after which we hurried away to the bank, the grocery store, to pick up the kids from school.
“I apologize to you for the mess.”
As a student of Tantra, I have heard the allusion to fire as a subtle form of consciousness itself— fire living in intelligence, echoing in sound. Fire is ethereal, even in grosser forms. Fire is a transforming and even transmuting substance, but also an action. Noun, verb and deep trigger to a trauma embedded in us long before the solar flares of a new new new geo-thermal-ism.
Geo-de of endless resources.
Ther— there, everywhere.
Mal-content, mismanagement, myriad assumptions of Gaia’s great indifference to us and our actions, a passive stage upon which actors create great art and progress beyond the Industrial Revolution’s wildest dreams.
Earthly heat, the fire of the Earth’s heart center aglow and throbbing,
bright globs of witches’ butter alighted on a log near Prometheus’ rock.
We will be, momentarily, eternally grateful for the small salamander remainder that slivers out of the char.
The stability of our moist, carbon-cum-fiber bodies is called into question by fire, metaphorical, or hot and real. In destruction or creation, Kali-like, we are pyrophoric, a dense pile of oily rags combusting with no torch, only time, which makes heat. In this case, the heat makes the flame, and the flame repays.
Our bodies are twisting, breathing wet molds of heat and being, and if fire courses through loins or blood, or brains or livers, we cannot say we have no cause to fuel our rage and our fear of unbecoming. Our bodies, fire’s very grossest form.
The lemon-rind and chanterelle leaf litter is waterlogged but soon brittle. All merely past shades to the being in the strike-match-mo-ment.
A strike-match-moment in a forest full of trees full of leaves written in the law of fire is a suck-in the-breath-mo-ment.
Trees and shrubs hold the potential for fire within the spongy, fibrous cords of their branches, trunks and stems. The element lives within them, as a possible future, tucked into their structural mesh and sponge. What possible futures do we have tucked into our sinews and blubbers? What elements are teeming beneath the surface, the rocks under the brook’s white water, the eels smooth and crowded in the foam? The bubbles aching to reach the top of the ice [soon, darlings, soon. The ice is almost spent.]
Flight, fight or freeze? Freezing in the face of this big, big burly fire of our near-future and near-present. Our songs and our stories are the sweet rhymes or effluences of the fire, our language. Our language, the fire— but who is tending her? We too are fire, and yet the fire is what burns us. Who is tending us?
A great throbbing heat of poetry is missing in so many hearts, so the heat of our murderous normalcy is scorching us dumb.
“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Self-immolation. I think of the desperation of the Tibetan monks protesting Chinese rule colored oppression, the searing pain and the cold confidence of the meditation on a violent death.
I had never heard of him, David. I do not recall a section of history class that dealt much with the travails of the zigzag of LGBTQ rights in our country— so, David Buckel’s legal contribution from the 90’s was new to me. For some reason, he is less remembered and revered for also helping to establish composting in his neighborhood in Brooklyn— those industrial charnels that roar at 140°F to break down bioplastic sporks from hip market lunch-breaks; spicy vegan curry noodles and LOCAL pork crackling still glistening on its tines.
See the common thread of our identity-obsessed navel gaze, in the certitude of our commitment to honor esquire and deign to observe his ecopathologia.
[Its a word if you are willing to understand it.]
[Its a frame of activism if you are willing to understand it.]
Wildfire echo and wave blanketing the Bay in their low notes on my jaunty, nauseating ‘taxi’ ride from the airport in San Bruno across the dusky peach 8-lane highway to the arid, golden hills of the southern San Francisco development. Even tucked just behind the verdant dried eucalyptus of Buena Vista hill, the peach-fuzz dust and warmth of the sidewalk and sky are ever-present.
“When can we go back to normal? When can we return to business as usual?”
That longing hangs in the air like the smoke did November of 2018, nary a face-mask in sight as families meander to after-school activities, blunder uphill to dinner, which comes delivered fresh and ready to cook, each of its ingredients pre-measured and wrapped in their own disposable plastic bags.
A longing to stick the ostrich head of our collective consciousness into the sands of normalcy.
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Our present grows more desperate, our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.”
I wonder at having one’s head in the sand, the feeling of the small silica and salt crystals first irritating before settling, like small pieces of cereal, into all the fine crevasses left between the downy and course hairs that dapple the nape. There is moisture that clings to the particles, oil that encourages their adhesion to our skin. The alchemy of the physical body on full displa… displeasure. I cant’ even think about breathing under there— my mushy air placentas, cradling life in each sip, these foamy meringue lungs grip and coil away at the thought of their stuffing! Silicosis, like boiling, starts slow and ends quickly.
Sun warmed sand offers heat most beautifully, to toes or thighs, on a scale that tips from comfort to scalding for the spaces between our callouses on our callous feet. The walking is harmless, the loss of sensation and its sloughing iceberg of indifference much less so. As if through the lack of feeling in the base of the toe mound and the cracked rear of the heel, I feel convinced that the hot sand isn’t, cannot, hurt me. Certainly my lungs breathe easy at their powerful distance north of the threatening grit.
Isn’t that always the thing? Those of us on high-enough ground don’t doubt the flooding at the waterline, we just don’t care. Our neighbors could be drowning, but they should have thought of that when they purchased their 100-year-flood insurance,
David Buckel wouldn’t have been a constituent of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but he may have been an ally from another borough. He may have shaken Greta’s hand as she disembarked her elitist-ish solar yacht and marched forth to condemn elitist eco-apartheid. And while so many of us burrow our heads into our earbuds and normal dealings, the Green New Deal (henceforth the GND) at least erupted in the fire and flesh of words and policy proposals early last year, after over forty brutally calm years in which the storm threatened but it
The Climate Strikes echoed its policy promises with constituent demands. I’m not sure if the volume of our nostalgic 90’s playlist got turned up slightly to drown out the protests outside the window, or if perhaps everyone paused to call their senators and pledge their deep desire for a just transition.
I wasn’t there, how could I know?
Cynicism like a quenching rock on a campfire wedges itself into the esophagus, the fire in the belly stutters and embers deprived of inspiration. Does the GND pour gasoline onto the fire of our collective hopes of keeping the fire burning despite the heated threat of hothouse earthA looming like a matchstick? Will the proposal itself go up in flames, or down in history?
I have read of the Green New Deal, in turns; our inability as a society to suffer the enormous financial cost [what is the cost of doing nothing differently?], its magical realism and lack of feasible enaction as read-between-the-lines busywork [what, then, do you propose, wealthy, powerful sirs and madams?] and accolades for its attempt to contend with the enormity of our task. [here, here! Here, too].
Fellow Vermonter, and notable author and environmental advocate, Bill McKibben's piece in the New Yorker in February of this very year dug the pit for the fire we need to build:
[The institutional Democratic Party 'compromise' legislation to the progressive push for a climate action policy]"...on first view... appear to be warmed-over versions of Obama-era environmental policy: respect for the Paris climate accord, a commitment to a mid-century conversion to renewable energy...It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so. Not insufficient—and here’s the important point—to meet the demands of hopelessly idealistic youth but because of the point that the kids were trying to make, which is that the passage of time is changing the calculations around climate change...Scientists have told us what we must do and by when, and so legislators must do all they can to match those targets. The beauty of the Green New Deal legislation is not that it’s shiny or progressive or a poke in the eye to the oil companies [or that it's perfect or ideal in even the eyes of tree-hugging lefties, because it's not]. Its beauty is that it actually tries to meet the target that science has given us."B
Yatha pinde tatha brahmande, yatha brahmande tatha pinde.
When did you last feel so fragile? Cumbersome, vulnerable?
Bruno Latour makes the comparison, smartly, between the experience of living in a Universe of Galilean objects [how cold, that] and a Universe of Lovelockian relationships in his thoughtful, blunt essay, Down to Earth.C I couldn't help but see these positions as being and doing. But upon reflection, this is a false dichotomy, the being and the doing, and one we can quickly resolve through a "yes, and..."
A match-stick moment is a suck-in-the-breath-moment. Yes, and.
I wonder if David’s one death was died in vain, how it can inspire us to do things differently, if at all. I wonder if Life on Gaia will transcend that same vanity, to continue Being. Yes, and.
In the end, as in the beginning, there will be fire. Whether it be Surtur's great sword brightening and then blackening all but the World tree's last root, buckling up through New England’s frost-heaved earth and smoke tainting the petrichor terroir, or perhaps instead the embodied fire of our collective will— metabolizing the toxicity of our relationship with Gaia and within Gaia?
Bhuta agni— fire for the ghosts, or fire for the elements.
I wonder if there is some nutritive current underpinning these hot poisons, running beneath the mycelial forest roots and even through the driest brown hills of the California near-coast. I wonder if indeed this heat does not kill us, will it make us burn brighter?
*"Italicized quotes" here are select quotes from David Buckel's suicide note, published at his request by the New York Times and other news outlets, on and after April 14th, 2018. I have struggled to find the complete 1300 word text of his letter.
*Author’s additional note:
Our culture’s inability to wrestle or reckon with death creates a mandate to call for acute mourning in the face of such a suicide as David Buckel’s, instead of honoring his sacrifice and empowering his intention for inspiration alongside that mourning. I do wish that Mr. Buckel were still with us, however I am also willing to acknowledge that the source of his suffering was so great as to be nearly impossible to heal thoughts around. Human compartmentalization keeps many of us breathing. But not all deaths, or suicides, are created equal. His death is a terrible loss for his family and community, and for those of us who benefited from his work and activism, even unknowingly. However, his dying wish to highlight environmental issues many are willfully blind to, and inspire action, is a gift if we choose to take it. One human soul is both very important, and also a drop of water in an ocean of life. It is no disservice to humanity to say so, nor to David Buckel. I do hope through acknowledging and honoring David Buckel’s contribution in both life and death that I am raising up the power of his work and honoring his wishes in his final anguish, allowing the meaning of his death to transcend the meaninglessness of our cultural shrug and ineffective discussion around suicide prevention.
May he rest in power.
A St. Clair, Peter. The Brooklyn Rail, October 2018. https://brooklynrail.org/2018/10/field-notes/Crossing-the-River-Styx-The-Endgame
B McKibben, Bill. The New Yorker, February 23, 2019.
C Latour, Bruno. "Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime." polity press, Cambridge, UK. 2017-18.