NATIONAL POETRY MONTH
By way of acknowledging April as Poetry Month, the Messenger Mountain News is celebrating the poets among us who, on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, sought to heal the effects of the November fires through Healing the Fire: A Reading of Poems and Dispatches, curated and presented by Loose Lips founders, Jean Colonomos and Millicent Borges Accardi, at the Topanga Public Library.
Twenty-one poets were selected and invited to participate in the presentation that was anchored around real-time dispatches that alternated with authors reading their poems. The event was additionally graced by the presence of three poet laureates: Phil Taggart of Ventura, Ricardo Means Ybarra, and Ellen Reich, the first and second Malibu poet laureates, respectively. Dispatches were culled from various sources released during and after the fires and read by Malibu poet Ann Buxie. Healing the Fire begins on page 15 and continues in the order presented at the reading. © 2019 All rights reserved by authors.
The poems are divided into Dispatches. Click on the red squares at the bottom to go to the next Dispatch
DISPATCH FROM CALFIRES.CA.GOV: In 2018 wildfire agencies responded to 6,284 fires, in 2017 6,468 fires, in 2016, 6,954 fires and in 2015 8,283 fires. According to the LA Times, since 2015 there’s been a fire every month.
FIRE SEASON by Phil Taggart
The tap of an air horn at 1 am woke us that distinctive fire engine horn klaxon lolling softly deeply a couple blocks away red sky fills our bedroom window
The hills were ablaze great plumes of smoke towered our neighbors awake eyes intent on the hills not far away flames whipped to frenzy by the Santa Ana winds
our electricity was off the power garage door was closed I disconnected opened it drove the car out we drove to Bristol Road a panoramic view of flames topping our hills from Santa Paula through Ventura
the winds drove the flames 13/14 miles an hour the fire blazed its way to Ojai / Oak View / The Rincon / palm trees explode on the beach/ Carpenteria / Santa Barbara
back home two kids were up on their roof the flames their silhouettes dark against the bright orange red
not quite a year later I’ve stopped my car on Bristol again to watch the newest fire roll over the hills whipped again by the Santa Anas
fear adrenaline awe
this time around Camarillo close to where it burned just a few years ago
the New York Times says this is a late season fire these days seems like there are no particular seasons for fire it’s all fire season
In Thousand Oaks / Oak Park / Simi / Calabasas / Agoura / Topanga
the fire hops over closes the 101 and flames all the way
to the ocean
NIGHT WORK by Chris Spangenberger
Awakened in the chamber of a Glock 45,
what began as a small contraction
of muscle in the index finger,
became the flame that pushed the bullet,
the flame we saw before the shock wave found us,
before the first one fell,
before the flame found eleven more,
before that flame, reflecting off broken glass,
escaped the killing room, spinning out into the night,
joining a maniac wind, that would, within days,
complete the awful work begun that night.
Second Evacuation by Kathi Stafford
We’ve done this once before
The helicopters fly low with their loudspeakers blaring
Evacuate now Evacuate now
The skies behind our Malibu home glow orange and black
I don’t want to leave my garden with its California poppies
in a neat row and the jade in bloom for Christmas
But children are more important than poppies
We grab violins sleeping bags a cello photo albums of baby pictures
The flames come down the hills next to our house
as the children begin screaming
Dan drives west on Pacific Coast Highway but fire
jumps the road so he makes a u-turn drives the Suburban
Over the median The right choice—
Others don’t turn around and lives are lost
We stay with friends in Conejo Valley for three nights then
back to our home Our little home still clinging to the cliff
My white stucco walls seared black smell of burnt rattlesnakes
And coyotes Nothing left in my garden and
Big black boot marks where firemen pulled
heavy hoses across the ecru carpet
We are fortunate Garden a light loss compared to friends with burned
out homes I have bad dreams for months What comes back from
ashes? I wonder if I still believe in the phoenix in rising up from dust and tears—
although I see grace friends taking in friends for months people cooking meals
for the suffering I wish I had taken my great grandmother’s biscuit barrel,
with its red roses and delicate china sides for comfort I worry about the next disaster
next fire next earthquake
What we survive next time
DISPATCH FROM AGOURA: As part of fire prevention in a public park, 300 goats were brought in to munch on the underbrush, which is most vulnerable to fires. It took an hour for the goats to finish the job. In that Agoura park, the fire line stopped where the goats had eaten.
MARAH by Marsha de la O
The East wind blows drought across our hill country,
our dry land. Rain has not come.
For three hundred days, roots have plunged as far as they can,
suckled what moisture they find, drawing it up until they can’t.
The East wind stirs dry stalks. Dry leaves twig off dry limbs.
The East wind blows in December.
This is unheard of, we cry, but we hear the wind.
We know what it means.
We speak to the sky. We petition the wind. Let if fall to others,
we whisper. We ask this in secret.
And it falls on others.
After fire burns the hillsides, burns the ground to a glaze,
melts silica in the earth to glass, our hill country
is brittle as sugar cubes, as yielding as sand.
The March rains fall gently, finally a blessing, and the beings
who must be born after fire are born and bloom quickly.
We call them beautiful. They are family; they survived like us.
They disappeared, they waited, now they come forth: canyon
sunflower, silver lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, milk thistle.
The vines crawl the slopes at night, spread their tentacles.
Coast morning glory – its other name is bindweed – found a way
to the Channel Islands, found a way to the burning grounds,
opens its thousand upturned faces, throats of pale lavender.
WINDING ROAD STANDS WITNESS by Marcy Wingard
Old Agoura, where its downward slide begins
twelve miles due south to reach Pacific shores
winds up and down through ridges, canyons, hills
bedecked with twisted stumps, blackened brush
sad ghosts of former landmarks flank its path
Kanan Road’s steep plunge to PCH and sea
reveals a sharpened burn scar at its base
gaps where homes once stood, like missing teeth
stand side by side with mansions, now forlorn
prior lush green gardens only ashes
This monster fire retained no prisoners
a home was either lost or stayed
behind to tell the tale to those at last returning
a Capricorn of blazes, skipped about
pushed by wild winds, driving flames
Paramount Ranch, its western town façade
known from many films, destroyed
familiar site where Mash played out its war
now only piles of rubble and ash remain
Christy’s Roadhouse, rustic purveyor
of chicken, ribs and beer—swallowed whole
Survivors, too, exist and soldier on
Neptune’s Net, the Rock Store, escaped cremation
stood tall against encroaching flames
the Hindu Temple, east of Malibu Canyon Road
untouched, a white mirage, still rises
First responders held the line,
so many homes were spared the flames
red slashes of retardant dropped from planes
for every loss, ten remain, safe
and grateful families thankful, sing in praise
Our precious Mountain Pearl
southern California’s Shangri-La
reduced to naked, wind-burned hills
sad reminders of former vistas left behind
to stand in witness, signal nature’s ire.
THINGS LIKE THIS HAPPEN by Ann Buxie
One day I sense something isn’t right.
One day, I know, how wrong they are.
A confession pours out. One sentence to tell it.
Hope shatters. One day and another
My heart pebbling.
One day friendship falls upon me.
Yes, I will mortar my words with yours
two of us, puzzling, pounding our salt.
I’ve been sanctified.
One day, one drought, wind comes, and fire
licking through canyons.
Prepare to evacuate.
I offer the house to flame,
drywall, palms, birds of paradise,
but take my home with me.
Memories decaded on this spit of land,
rooted in the earth, swarming in the air.
You steeled me for a new beginning.
In this charred and holy hour,
I’ve been sanctified.
things like this happen.
R U OK by Ellen Cohen
Yes seems the most encompassing response,
emotionally, physically along with an
overwhelmingly sense of being blessed.
I have a door
I can open and shut behind me.
A mess to clean up.
A scorched hill outside bedroom and kitchen windows
now turning green.
Like a bear on its back playing in the snow
if the mud slides when it rains
I’ll just flow with it
or let it tuck me in.
So many have lost everything.
If they can cope, so can I.
Wishing you a little holiday magic
Like the three deer I spotted
grazing on the emerging vibrant green carpet.
Nature can be so bountiful.
Can being the operative word.
Give voice to the full gamut of
throttled and swallowed feelings.
Breathe in a steady stream of oxygen.
Feed all cells within.
Break the cast I’ve fashioned and
lived with for so long.
Toss its constraining power into consuming flames.
DISPATCH FROM ELLEN REICH, MALIBU PARK LANE: Dec.21, “ This morning I took my usual three mile walk around my neighborhood and counted 94 houses down. On my walk later in December: I am now up to 130 houses down.
FLUFFY by Fernando Salinas
she is wild, uncontrollable and screams
not for me–
oily skin drying out, sweating in our living room,
holding the flimsy green hose
seemingly capable of no more than a drool
as thick black creeps at me
so, I search with stinging eyes
the sun hides in blistering walls
heat plops in clumps from charred ceiling
trembles in puddles on the kitchen tile
the food stuffed cabinets cook,
cans pop, windows shatter, the clatter of silverware
escaping smoldering drawers…
I ignore it all, as though,
none of these things matter
and call for Fluffy in sore throat hisses
while curtains vanish like flash paper
and I can smell the hair on my arms
and the sofa, and plastic, and wood, and wall mounted TV
singed possessions, the bitter smell
of years of horded memories
yet, nothing is burning except my lungs
everything is melting—a Dali painting on fire
family photo faces slide from picture frames
to the floor
at her bedroom
I am reminded of the time
my dad told me not to pick
up the glowing charcoal, it hurt
the time he told me not to sip
hot cocoa through a straw…
I never listened, but I can hear
my mother’s sobs, hear her screaming more,
begging for me to save something
I can smell dead behind the door
HOLY FIRE by Elaine Alarcon-Totten
My cousin in Idaho thinks fire
is God’s punishment for California’s sins,
a purification of Paradise
incinerating houses, trees, people, and creatures,
PG&E its holy instrument
Do zealots rejoice
that there is no calendula
for burnt souls, for gutted prayers
wafting upward in ash
or for the scorched skin of earth
and its fried flesh and bone?
Are there no sinners in Idaho?
From space the globe seems to be leaking,
a blue balloon that spouts gusts of steam
and will soon shrivel and shoot off to infinity,
in red and blue, sacred colors.
If Revelation is to come, it is God’s secret tba.
Death, being democratic, who would wish it?
OF GOD AND INSURANCE by Florence Weinberger
After the fires, a strangeness set in.
As if the flames had unseated our souls.
The hillside spill of damaged household
goods had assumed their broken shapes;
hard to tell how once they were useful.
New plants were sprouting, and queer.
A lone mushroom next to the road,
unlike the common fungi you’d find
packaged up in market bins,
a mushroom I’d never seen before.
Further on, close to the dunes,
another, an unaccountable scatter.
I did not dare pick them, just stared,
as if to fathom a lethal intention.
The dunes banked to shore up the road
were sifting away, running back down
to the safety of the tides but the tides
were stunned, and incomprehensible.
Neighbors were tentative, afraid to ask.
Their dogs yanked at their leashes.
Cars slowed down. After the fires, thick
ropes of rain, and then there was sludge.
Black ash covered everything. Shoved
by the wind under my door like junk mail.
Under my feet, stuck to my shoes.
People wore masks, even in church.
They called meetings, shouted and shook
their heads, spoke of blunder and blame,
of God and insurance, rain that came
too late to matter.
After the fires, it was as if I had moved
to a smaller country, to my new life.
DISPATCH FROM PERLA LOVEJOY FROM A RURAL TOWN IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: “Since the Valley fire in 2015, there’s a level of PTSD that is inflamed. Everyone needs attention. Some people are just rebuilding from all the previous fires. In a rural area, every person counts for two; our resources are strained. One of the most intense outcomes is the higher number of homeless people who had no insurance and for whatever reason, no reliable support circle.”
DARK MATTER by Sandra Cannaday Knapp
Between raindrops we hold our collective breath,
Wondering if earth will stay or wash away
In post-fire rain. Hills stripped of brush and grass
By hungry fire fingers show drab blanket of char,
Suspended animation, film broken awaiting repair.
And scientists have proven a theory
Which Einstein had abandoned: That “dark matter”,
Negative to our positive, exists in space so far away
We are not likely to meet. Dark matter, balanced,
Unlike many of us, so dis-ordered we scramble
Back and forth, conflicted more than ants who
Know their own purpose while we struggle
For power, think we are alone,
That we choose our own fate —
When the only matter that matters is whether
Or not we save room for each other, similar and
Different, sane and un-sane, but willing to look,
Acquire wonder in anthills, and, outside our sphere,
Such dancing of dark and light that we
Find our way, held together
In whirl of near and distant starlight.
ALMOST HALLOWEEN by Anita S. Pulier
Here in California
it is October, almost Halloween
to my Eastern eye, the colors are off
no orange no rust.
Even the pumpkin patch
of a seasonal entrepreneur
emits a yellow glow as
hundreds of helpless gourds
bake in the relentless sun
The grasses are dry
the heat intense
the nasty Santa Ana’s
bluster and plot
scrounging the arid earth
for one small spark,
the chance to let it fly.
And boom! the holiday arrives
rust and orange flames
whip through tinder brush,
armies of invading ghosts
whooshing and crackling
sucking gobs of oxygen
a child’s game gone mad
police cars and
shiny red fire trucks blast
at bewildered people in
nightmares break free
as small children and
snatched out of warm beds
thrown into cars and
raced to safety wondering
is this the
Day of the Dead
or some kind of trick
with a treat to follow
RESET by Diogo Avancini Fernandez, high school student
(Read by Ricardo Means Ybarra)
my house of 14 years
my first steps
my first words
my loved ones
starting from scratch
everything over again.
DISPATCH FROM THE MALIBU LIBRARY: A middle-aged couple arrive to fill out their FEMA paperwork at the Malibu Library accompanied by a large dog. Their house has been completely destroyed, but they bravely state their lives are wonderful as long as they have their darling dog. When the man goes inside the library to fill out paperwork, his partner finds a seat on a bench, and the dog curls around her feet. Only then does she let her shoulders drop and her facade falls. She remains motionless, staring off into the distance like a shell-shocked soldier for an hour until his return.
ODE TO THE WIND by Jennifer Kelley
old dear friend,
who brought me love
and the feel of hands on my skin
long before it was my due.
Why now will you bring me fire,
homes lit with pain and loss?
Why now will you bring me the heartache
that you once were the one to soothe.
I once wrote,
Walking/against/ the wind/feels how I know it would/ to love you.
Once you were the hand of love,
now you whistle and whip sparks and flames
now you batter us into calling your name.
And I don’t have to wonder about your gender anymore.
but I remember the good times,
when you carried me along,
when you sang to me softly
that good time song.
as I hear the neighbors begin to scatter
their car doors slam, luggage wheels rattle,
I think you must be heartless after all.
But I can still remember when you made make-believe.
CHARRED ON THE BLACK BREAST by Ellen Reich
Title from Ceremony After a Fire Raid by Dylan Thomas
Summer turns dead-brown
against a peopled tide
shoulder olive-drab trees
holding on and reaching deep
to find a buried stream
hissing as they arc
make a bridge of light
when desert winds flush the air away
spark the dragon
that eats fields barren and mutilates
the trembling long-eared hare
the homeless coyote
the jerking lizard
I’ve seen the barren-wasted hills
after wild-fire wars
Their stubble-leavings black
Stumps knob out
like awkward cactus flowers
on devil soil
where ribbon snakes
search for scorched meat
on little skulls of rodents
Floods raise the coffins
of our lost
and a mother tosses her infant girl
from a second-story window
just before a burial of mud
writhes its way
IN MY DREAMS by Flavia Potenza
I dreamed I’m dancing airborne above flaming hillsides and canyons, impervious to fire.I am burning in ferocious freedom, hungry, grasping for everything in sight.
In my dream I wouldn’t know the agony of breathless lungs reluctantly choosing to inhale Life or Death.
In my dream, I’m floating above blackened hillsides and canyons garbed in flowing smoke joyously kicking up ashen dust devils that waft against a cloudless azure sky as if nothing bad had ever happened.
In my dream I’m the rain embracing scorched earth of hillsides and canyons, its incinerated shadows, its detritus that quicken and gather all in its path turning burn scars into rivulets, rivers, torrents, and carry the newborn into a chocolate sea.
I know someone who calls them nightmares.
I call them dreams and return to her night after night until she’s strong again and asks me to leave.
DISPATCH FROM LOCAL 69 FIREMEN: lunching across from Jean at the Bistro. They look exhausted after fighting fires for three weeks. I ask one fireman how they feel about their job. He points to a young fireman and says, “Four days on the job, he’s 25 and feels he has his dream job.”
ON A RIDGE OF THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS, PART 2 by Ricardo Means Ybarra
Sunrise huddles under the covers
with Cynthia, curved beauties
reluctant to stretch
for the coffee
with a kiss
along one rim.
At 6 in the morning on the trail
above Zuma top of Busch drive
I hike straight up over ash
the homes of friends and neighbors
a stable, the loss of memory.
On the ridge lusty rays
remove my jacket, peel
an orange, stare down
the burned canyon walls.
We know there will be rain
obese gusts from the Northwest
sliding into town
drunk as sailors.
Before heading down I linger
search for the farthest islands
Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and Clemente
a gopher humps up dark red earth
cheeks flush with seeds-
touch my wife in the warm bed
find a slight reflection of a dream
rising in the sun.
GREENHOUSES by Nancy M. Morse
Framework of abandoned
the only structures
on the fallow field
near Malibu city hall.
Every Friday I drive past,
admire their beauty.
Straight sides and pointed roof.
Metal bars, upright and cross,
that once held panes of glass.
This Friday as I drive near
A voice speaks:
Photograph these today.
Can’t don’t have my camera.
Get it and come back.
It is a long distance, will be dark,
I’ll do it next week.
The voice reminds me:
You seldom use your camera,
you enjoyed photographing
structures like this.
Yes, it has been many years
since I felt the thrill of photography.
As though looking
through the camera lens
I see the close up of angles,
the pictures I will take.
Saturday the voice speaks.
Go to Malibu,
photograph the greenhouses.
I don’t want to drive that far,
I’ll do it next Friday.
Sunday a fire roars through Malibu.
ZUMA by Riley Jaret, Ninth-grade student
(Read by Ricardo Means Ybarra)
The displaced rancher
rests against the chain fence
watching his horse gallop in the sand.
The displaced mother
rocks her masked child
watching hillsides burn from the sand
The distraught surfer
re-enters the waves
watching the dark water draw from the sand.
and the plume envelops the beach
smoke spreads over the sand.
The displaced rancher
hurries his horse back into the truck.
The distressed mother
holds her masked child as she runs.
The distraught surfer
hurls his board in the flatbed.
Watching as they drive away.
DISPATCH FROM NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S BUTTE COUNTY: The accelerated winds at 40 miles per hour caused the Camp Fire to spread at the speed of one football field a second.
FAMILY PORTRAIT by Kim Zanti
On scorched earth, last harvested by mother and sons,
a hand rake juts up from a bed of ash. The mother stands
and stares at its claw, paint bubbled and peeling.
No longer suited for her kneeling sons to scratch the earth’s skin,
poke fingers in the soil and plant seeds.
A gray blanket smothers their vegetable rows, fruit orchard,
flower garden. Father and sons join her to stare where blooms
once blazed, now absent of color, holding no light.
The younger boy reaches down, touches the rake, looks up.
Asks, “Can I keep it?” The mother clenches her teeth,
The rake blackens his hand. It smells of fire. Fear roars into his blood.
He turns and wraps his arms around his mother’s legs. His brother wraps his arms
around her hips. Her husband pulls her to his chest, where she burrows.
They do not separate for a long time.
They are all that remains.
TARNISHED HEART by Kathie Gibboney
Cities on fire, places we know, suddenly so dear,
their smoke rising in the air.
And what would it be like to lose a house, a pet, all precious things?
I fear I would fall on the ground and kick and yell and grab the scorched earth,
weeping over the loss
and never believe in angels anymore.
In stark January, bleak with rain, in a house still standing,
I pack up my beloved Christmas treasures, folding tissue paper around,
merry elves, golden pixies, china bells, snow globes, Santas, gnomes,
elegant reindeer stately and silent,
and unidentifiable glue and glitter creations, made by children’s hands.
But one obstinate angel will not fit anywhere. No box will hold her
and I wander about the living room with her in my hands
until I am called to look at her.
She is an Irish angel with shamrocks ‘round her skirt,
but that skirt is charred and blackened.
One careless Christmas Eve, she stood tall upon the shelf amongst the Christmas finery,
her wings spread wide over my old, adored collection,
all set upon a cloth of silver sheen.
And the Angel Chimes spun ‘round, with their little tinkling sound,
An ancient machine propelled by candles.
How long the angel smoldered we do not know,
busy with ribbons and bows.
She burned slowly until we smelled the smoke,
Then grabbed her by the wings and ran her to the kitchen sink,
where she sizzled under water.
No other treasures were burnt, the angel took the hit.
She wears her tarnish proudly.
And I know, if but she could,
she would stand one-hundred feet tall and protect us all from the coming flame.
But should come a day I fall on the ground,
bereft with loss and grief, may I still then believe in angels, within my tarnished heart.
DISPATCH FROM A CANYON IN MALIBU: A woman and man are in a car fleeing flames. They pass a home where the fire is creeping up the hill ready to ignite the house. Noticing a swimming pool, they race out of the car, find the pool pump and turn it on encroaching flames. They get back in the car and speed off, having saved a stranger’s home.