“The Bonfire”

“The Bonfire”
(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

in our exuberance to burn the words
Bradbury sagely nods and Orwell sighs
as shock-troopers corral the motley herds
and churlish masses watch with sullen eyes

bonfires glow red in every city square
eight thousand million names recited there
black smoke and fetid fumes assault the air
as filthy faces flicker in the glare

the Keepers of the Words arrive anon
in every town and burg in all the lands
and silence drops like cluster bombs upon
the billions gathered, and within their hands

the Keepers of the Words display The Tome
wherein all words of man have found their home
brought forth from dark cob-webby catacomb
a vade mecum in the darkling gloam

and with the fall of night the Keeper speaks
to all assembled round the burning pyre
“The time has come for every man who seeks
to purge his mind and cleanse his soul in fire.

“To speak one’s mind is tantamount to sin;
tomes with the thoughts of others writ within
shall lead you to the darkness and the din
of hellfire and the madness found therein.

“And so, to save your soul and cleanse your heart
Dear Leader, in his love and lenity,
has offered you a choice: from words depart
and rollick in silent indemnity,

“or immolate your filthy craven mind
and burn to ashes your pathetic rind–
obedience is bliss; the fire unkind
live silently, or fry in flames refined.”

smoke from the bonfire eddies in the night
as nervous glances dart among the crowd
and hands grip slips of paper, knuckles tight
where words are scrawled to soon be read aloud

the Keeper of the Words begins the rite
and summons forth the first name of the night
and from the crowd a man steps toward the light
his gait unsure, his face an ashen white

“Your word, comrade,” the Keeper’s voice demands
“or else the fire…it’s up to you, good sir…”
and from the paper held in shaking hands
he reads a single solitary word

“Freedom…”

then with a cry the guards drag him away
and Keeper of the Words calls out to say
“The word ‘freedom’ is stricken forth this day
from mankind’s lexicon…small price to pay…

“…for one’s life, is it not?” and with a grin
announces the next name, and from the pack
a ragged woman, elderly and thin
approaches bravely, never looking back

“Your word, comrade…” the Keeper starts to say
“You’ll have no word of mine, not on this day
or any day!” the woman says, a fey
expression of defiance aimed his way

and crumpling her paper in her ire
she drops it on the ground and cries aloud
then launches her old body toward the fire
and burns as horror overwhelms the crowd

“Her word was “love,’” the Keeper says, amused,
“and though this woman steadfastly refused
to sacrifice this word, someone will choose
to strike it from existence,” and bemused

he calls another name, and then the next
and on it went throughout the endless night
as words like hope and peace fell from the text
of Keeper’s Tome, and love faded from sight

and in the end, at breaking of the day
we all depart and make our solemn way
into a silent world of empty grey
with nothing left for anyone to say

…..

(This poem is inspired by the recent rash of censorship being pushed by the republican party here in America, where books are being banned and even burned as right-wing radicals promote fear, lies and hatred aimed at people of color and marginalized groups. Also, in many places across the globe, freedom of speech is under siege as authoritarian regimes crack down on those who speak truth and expose their evil deeds. As writers, we cannot allow this to happen. We have voices; we must use them to ensure all people are free to speak their minds.)

35 thoughts on ““The Bonfire”

    1. Thanks so much, my friend. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately and it’s come out in my last few pieces, which have been much more serious than my usual writing. Just had to get some things off my chest, I suppose. I always appreciate your kindness and support. Much thanks! 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much. This means a lot to me–I’ve admired your blog for quite a while now and have so much respect for your writing. I really appreciate your kind words of support and encouragement. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jane. It’s getting really weird here in the States with the censorship and book banning/burning. It feels more like a Ray Bradbury novel (Fahrenheit 451) or a George Orwell story (1984 or Animal Farm). It’s so surreal to read every day about threats and lawsuits and legislation and violence regarding this stuff. It’s honestly very disturbing and bodes ill for freedom, not only here but around the world. Thanks as always for your kind support. I truly appreciate it. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Kirsten. I’ve had a lot on my mind recently and was having trouble writing anything. There’s so much going on in this country and the world. I was drawing blanks whenever I’d try to think about putting words to paper. I realized I needed to just write what was going on in my head instead of worrying if people would think it was too serious or dark or whatever. My last three pieces have all been about heavy stuff, but I’m glad I’ve written those pieces. I told a friend yesterday it’s like pouring Drano in my brain to unclog my writer’s block so I can get back to writing, even if it means getting some painful words on paper. I’m quite passionate about the whole censorship issue and find it incredibly alarming and a real threat to all we hold dear. Also, I really love challenging myself to write in a strict format, even though it takes a lot out of me, so I enjoyed this one, although it took a while to finish. When writing (or any type of art) is exciting, things start to flow, you know? I crave that. I’m rambling now 😀 but I appreciate your nice comments and support. 🙂

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  1. What a scene you create! It’s a kind of nightmare and made so powerful by its relevance to the current state of the world. I so admire your adherence to rhyme and metre. It’s something I do test myself with occasionally but generally get frustrated by the restrictions and untie the leash. I also think it’s admirable to write serious rhyming poetry and you carry it off masterfully. THis is a great poem, beautifully expressed.

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    1. Many thanks. I do love structured verse (a LOT) but it is exhausting for me and takes a lot out of me. I think this took around six hours to write. It’s easy to get stuck and flounder about when adhering to a strict format. I suppose that challenge is why I enjoy it so much. I love free-verse as well (and love poetry’s “toss out all the rules” attitude in general), but I have a fondness for classical poetry and it seems to want to manifest itself with me. The subject matter of this one its definitely serious and disconcerting, and I love dark themes and horror, so it was a match made in dystopian heaven (that would be “hell,” wouldn’t it? 😀 ). Obviously, some influences here are Bradbury, Orwell and Shirley Jackson. Anyway, your kind words are so appreciated. It keeps me going when folks leave positive feedback. Serious themes seem to garner little attention, so I appreciate your reading and commenting. 🙂

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  2. What a wonderful and powerful write. The systematic marginalization of oppressed groups in this country continues as does fear mongering, yet as you write so eloquently, we can and should still take our actions. Use our pseudo pens and take a stand. Completely agree with you, Mike. An important post all around.

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    1. Many thanks, Jeff. It’s a topic that concerns me to a great degree. I’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” several times each, and the concepts of systematic oppression and censorship are terrifying, and already functioning here and abroad. It’s a powerless feeling to witness this stuff and not really have any way to combat it. I like to think words have power and can change the world. Perhaps I’m just a dreamer, I don’t know, but this is something that should be a clarion call to everyone to wake us up before it’s too late. Thanks for your always-kind words. I truly appreciate your support and encouragement. 🙂

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      1. You’re welcome, Mike. Always. I completely understand, and we need dreamers, for they are the ones that effect change in the world. The degree of change matters less than that change is manifest in the world for the better. 😊

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  3. This is so powerful, sad, and inspiring. I love the way you have put across the message…
    Positivity and freedom are slowly destroyed or banished. There is no room for restricted thinking and actions. Who makes the decisions? This is simply bullying on a higher level. Your words are really beautiful, Mike. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Terveen. You nailed it–this is indeed bullying at the highest level, and for those of us who experienced bullying at lower levels, it’s especially maddening. Our governments are supposed to ensure our safety, freedom and well-being, not suppress our basic human rights. I love the stories that provided inspiration for this poem, but they’re also so incredibly dark and depressing and frightening. I hope our world never devolves to that point, but I’m not gonna place any bets that it doesn’t. I always appreciate your enthusiastic support. 🙂

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  4. Oh this is quite revealing, Mike. Freedom of speech and expression should not be razed down and discarded by governments, but as we can clearly see, all roads clearly lead towards that. It’s high time all writers stood up together against such a constitutional reprobation of its own ilk. This narrative poem certainly speaks about it. Quite clear and compelling, full of heroic characters who die for the truth they believe in. I am touched. What a skilfully admonishing writing! 💞❤💞

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    1. Thanks, Lamittan. It’s indeed frustrating and frightening. Heck, I remember my 12th-grade Advanced Placement English teacher editing my stories and changing the endings so they aligned with his own political views, which was most certainly censorship, and to do so to a 17-year-old student was incredibly unethical. Then again, this same teacher later publicly mocked the African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which decimated New Orleans, Louisiana. (I was living in Shreveport, Louisiana when the hurricane struck but my area was totally unaffected.) He was a horrible person, and his racist attitude and censorship of my writing has stuck with me all these years. So, this goes way back for me, and seeing it happening with renewed zeal at the the government level (republican party) leaves me with a sense of impending doom. Thanks for your encouraging and supportive words, Lamittan. I always look forward to your reviews. 🙂

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      1. Most welcome, my friend Mike. Your teacher was such a psycopath and racial epithet, too bad… such people are the source of mayhem in a society. See, instead of instilling love and kindness in his students, he simply rooted racism and ethnic hegemony. Too sad! I’m glad his malefic acts never changed your rightful perception of humanity and, see, you’re a wonderful human who can stand up arms blazing against terrible such destroyers of our society namely, censorship, racism, and war. With whatever means we can, we must fight and never allow ourselves to be taken back to the eras of authoritarianism. Have you realised that it’s slowly coming back, democracy is under siege, being fought from all quarters 🤔

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  5. This is an impactful and one heck of a powerful one Mike, deserve a standing ovation. I am speechless after reading it but I am absolutely sure that this world would be a better place to live in with more people like you. We are in this together. 🤗🙌

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    1. Thank you, Daphny. Your words really made my day, and I appreciate your sentiments so much. *humbled* 🙂 I’m glad there are people like you in this world, and I’m happy to stand with you to make this a better place. Words are powerful, and that’s why some people are afraid of them to the point where they censor them and threaten or kill those who write them. Let’s hope kindness and truth prevail. Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. It really means a lot to me. 🙂

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      1. You’re most welcome Mike, I am glad to knw that is so. Well it is said that a pen is mightier than sword and we all know it is so. Kindness and truth will always prevail in the end. 🙂🌸

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    1. Thanks, David. I appreciate this. I spent around six hours on this and it was exhausting. I love the challenge of strict rhyme and meter (I’m a big fan of more traditional formats). I like the flow and the appearance of the words when they adhere to a more orderly pattern on the page. But man, it takes a lot out of me and leaves my mind feeling like a deflated basketball. I love free-form poetry, too, but sometimes an idea just demands more structure. I hit a wall midway through and just sat here in a sort of daze, my eyes burning from staring at the screen so intently for so long. Fortunately, for me at least, when a poem is done, it lets me know, so after a brief break, I came back and was able to wrap it up appropriately. I really like this sort of narrative poetry that tells a story. Being a huge horror/dystopia fan helps, too. I hope we never come to the point where the broken worlds of Bradbury and Orwell become ours. I appreciate your encouraging support so much, David. And for what it’s worth, I believe any long poetry you write would be nothing short of masterful. You have a gilded pen (or keyboard!). Many thanks! 🙂

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