On January 13 Alex Joyner posted his stunning new poem, “Sunset in Archer County,” on his Heartlands blog. Coincidentally, that same day an employee of Hawaii’s emergency alert system issued a false alarm that terrified residents and visitors: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” I read Alex’s poem with that news story hovering over my head. First the poem . . .
Sunset in Archer County
If coyotes howl at sunset
why do we sit in silence?
Staring at our screens
or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings
we let the miracle pass
day after night after day.
That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends
some millions of miles beyond us
is passing once more out of sight
plunging us into dark from which we could
and we chose diversion
instead of braying into the dying light?
The creatures are more wise than I.
I want to strip down naked
and join the coyote clan.
I want to skulk beneath a barbed wire fence
leaving tufts of hair to mark the passing.
I want to move lightly over loose rock
and spiky ground
to gather on a height,
there to loose the cry
that would squelch the yearning
lodged in my chest.
Joined in song—this desperate song—
by others of my breed
To note this orange moment
this golden moment
this vermillion moment
this inky moment
this night of the full moon’s rise
Because it may not come again
And where would I rather be on my or the earth’s
than basking in that light
with all my wildness hanging out?
The image that stood out on first reading was that of a people so “dumbfounded by our electrified darlings” that we don’t notice the miracles around us—even one on which our very existence depends. If the “nuclear furnace” didn’t greet us each morning, we would die, yet our tendency toward distraction keeps us from feeling the significance of its coming and going.
The choice of “nuclear furnace” is a reminder that the sun generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium, but the use of that term in this poem suggests another kind of nuclear fusion that could send humankind into “a dark from which we would never recover.” That suggestion was later underlined in “the orange moment” of the sunset.
Then the image of coyotes “braying into the dying light” is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s poem in which he entreats his dying father to fight death:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In the last half of the poem, Alex chooses the elemental howling response of the coyotes over the distracted oblivion of human beings. It is hard to read the emotion of a braying animal. It could be joy at the wonder of it all, rage against the dying of light, or something entirely different, but whatever the emotion, it is a fierce, energetic, no-holds-barred cry that says, “I am alive. I am fully here in this moment. If this is the last sunset, I’m showing up, taking notice, and engaging it.”
Now back to that false emergency alarm in Hawaii that terrified residents and visitors. One of my friends, Karla Kincannon, who is an artist and the Director of Spiritual Formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was in Hawaii on January 13. On Facebook she wrote, “I was walking outside without cellphone when a woman ran out of her house to warn me of the approaching missile. I thanked her and continue to peacefully enjoy the incredible beauty of the world around me, knowing if it were true there would be nothing I could do. I might as well enjoy the last few moments without fear.” She wasn’t going to let the “miracle [of the beauty of that place and that moment] pass unnoticed.”
Photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash