“I light / a small fire in the rain.” —Galway Kinnell

That line by Kinnell, from one of my favorite books, his amazing “Book of Nightmares” blazed off the page when I first read it as a young man. I’ll never forget how that small sentence, how those two lines felt so resonant, ringing and reverberating beyond the words, other-world reaching. It blazed for me, like a philosophy, that sentence. I read it, re-read it aloud. And have never forgotten it.

Life is suffering, says the first Noble Truth. The rain falls. The cold and the dark inherent in the world, if momentarily gone, are returning. But I can light a small fire. And I love small fire, that crucial diminished modifier letting us know that anything we ignite—in the passing moment—is a blaze that can warm ourselves or others. Maybe for you it is a breath. A prayer. A smile. A kindness toward a stranger.

As my life went on, this sentence, this philosophy, stayed with me, and for me the small fire has been the poem. They’ve been life-saving, these little blazes. Whether made by others—how they’ve called me toward them, given me haven and warmth despite the dark. Or, even moreso, the small fires I’ve learned to make myself. There’s nothing else I’m good at, really—but this stacking of words, the tinder of heart and breath, this thing I can make and watch ignite, and, if I’m lucky, share with others. A thing that another person, or a small group of people can huddle around.

“Write, for the darkness is coming,” my mentor Tom Lux signed off on an email to me more than once, more than a decade ago. Though not necessarily an optimist, I always figured it was just a touch of Lux’s gallows humor. But here we are. In the coming dark that’s been here always, and growing.

So–what can a poem do? A touch? Some small gesture? What light, what love passes from hand to hand? Can these small fires grow—one toward another—merging? I believe so. One hundred percent. I’m not sure I’d keep writing poems if I didn’t believe they make a positive difference in the world. The ripple, the flicker that spills toward wave, toward inferno. How all the small things grow, and overcome—from one being, one soul, to another. Glance by glance, poem by poem. If hate is a mountain, here comes the sea.

Throughout this ugly year I’ve been writing. A lot. I’ve finished one manuscript, years in the making, called CAGE. Another collection has strong wings toward completion, and I’m halfway into a third. Gathering sticks for these small fires wherever I can find them, I’m walking deeper and deeper into the old and somewhat terrifying woods of my psyche, and out into bright reaches I’ve never seen. It’s all I can do against the dark.

Here’s a smattering of recent poems. I hope they reach you–and I hope that any warmth or light they offer–you carry to another, in a way you know how. Stay safe. Mask up. Trust in the love and light–only ever briefly dimmed. Thanks for reading these poems, and supporting ALL poets.

Garden Cello

Come we swarm to the sun-warmed gold.
Come we to the wood, come we drawn
to hum and hold. Come we lonely. Come we low.
Come we pray to key and scale, to homilies
of thrum. Come we sonata. Come we want.
Come we to bowed head and scroll, come we
spiral round the blooming bud. Come we curl
and thrill. Come we pulse of the bow’s slow lick.
Come we flow. Come we tease the hem
of purfling, come we drone and purr. Come we
down long neck and waist. Come we finger,
come we peak. Come we glide vibrato. Come we
itch to crest and spill. Come we tongue and blossom.
Come we solo, come we cell. Come we call
and follow. Come we cavity. Come we dive.
Come we honey stomach. Come we nectar melody.
Come we alive. Come we to the F-hole gates,
come we to the sweet dark hive. Come we
crescendo. Come we full and hollow. Come we
whole and home. Come we come we honeycomb. 

—Robert Fanning

from Thrush, January 2021 issue

—from Red Wheelbarrow, National Edition, 2020
—from Red Wheelbarrow, National Edition, 2020
from Red Wheelbarrow, National Edition, 2020
from The Laurel Review, 53.1

from The Laurel Review, 53.1

from Porter Gulch Review, 2020, 35th Edition

from Porter Gulch Review, 2020, 35th Edition

from The Baffler, #50

8 thoughts on “Small Fires

  1. I remember about 10 years ago listening to you read poems in Saginaw and how your poem about your sister and the peach made me cry silent tears that ran down my cheeks because I was too shy to wipe them from my face and thus draw attention to myself but so caught up in the poem that I could not help myself. Thank you.

    1. Dear Jeanne,

      I’m so moved by your kind words. Thank you so very much for reaching out and expressing this to me. It means so much to me that my poem moved you in that way.

      I’m sorry it took a couple weeks to get back to you.

      If you’d like to purchase the book that poem is in–it’s called “Staying the Night,” here is a link to do so.

      Or if you’d rather buy it from me, I’d be happy to send you a signed copy from my own stack. You can email me at seedthievery@gmail.com, if you’d rather that.

      Or if you don’t want the whole book–I’d be happy to send you a copy of the poem to read.

      Be well and stay safe—

      Robert Fanning

  2. Hello, Robert and hello, Alan! How good to find you both here. I’m so glad to have spent time with these poems, Robert. I am awash and away!

    1. Hi Robert,
      Have you any Old Bright Wheel copies to sell? I have been looking for months and can just find collectable copies. That’s what happens when you are a star and light small (and in my case bright) fires. I love all your work, but really dig your early poetry. I’ll be looking for notices of your upcoming readings to hear you in person!

      Mary Anna

      1. Hi Mary Anna, this is so kind of you! Thank you for the lovely message. I think I have about four copies of Old Bright Wheel. I’d have to find them, but if I do, I will happily sell one to you and send it.

        However, just so you know, that chapbook consists mostly of poems that are in The Seed Thieves, with the exception of about one or two. Knowing that, if you don’t want it, I will certainly understand.

        Just let me know at my email address: seedthievery@gmail.com.


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