Bone Fires


Audio: Hear the poet read this poem aloud

The manikin’s head is filled with water so
When the bonfire brings it to a boil
It explodes and shoots up into the air—
Not enough water to put out the fire
Which will burn on, consuming the manikin
And itself, throwing its light on the happy faces of the crowd.
They have watched rockets bursting in air
And called back the century when the terrorist Fawkes,
For trying to blow up the government
And unleash a revolt, was hanged, not burned.
The bonfire at this time of year commemorates
A much older terror, the sun weakening,
Dipping out of sight earlier and earlier,
Its worshipers panicking at the darkness
And forcing the darkness back, sending
A message through in a body of fire,
Calling the body of the sun, sometimes
With the bodies of sacrifice—bone fires
Offered like brides to lure the sun to return.
And, indeed, the sun returned, though slowly,
Miserly, through months of desolate cold.
Stoked with bones and piety and the practical sense
That the ritual worked, on the fells of Europe,
The beacon prayers called light to light.
They brought the sun back. The sun returned.
And to gather now around pyres of memory
Upon memory, bundled and stacked and ignited
At any time, but especially as winter comes on,
Can make the most terrifying event—
Auto-da-fé, crucifixion, choose one—a celebration.

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Mark Jarman’s recent collections include Epistles (2007) and

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