The Gifts of Fire – Jiří Duchek

We bring another poetic text by potter Jiří Duchek, this time about fire, its power and might, about what it brings and how it transfroms things… Wood-firing from a potter – poet point of view.

Gift Of Fire

Like desolate temples consecrated to fire ages ago, like cave sanctuaries, cold kilns sleep quietly in deserted places. Kilns that used to belong to brick makers, potters and stove makers are covered by a shroud of time. Under a layer of bricks, fireclay, wood, dry leaves and a layer of red dust… they are overgrowing with vegetation in the shadow of of light shelters. Crowned by birds’ nests, undisturbed, they dream their red hot dreams. Clay giants, humble servants, they await patiently the arrival of their master. The one who’ll insert the shem in their mouth. Many of them will come to life again, they’ll breathe in fire, the fire will pervade them and create something new through them. However, some of them will wait forever. They will turn into dust, like all their children, only a bit earlier.

Hoping is just
a temporary state
of emergency

Raw pottery gently sinks into a dream as I slowly wall up the kiln with bricks and daub. My ideas and preconceptions, desires and past decisions are falling asleep on the pile of meticulously stacked vessels. I let all the ideas of beauty and perfection fulfil their fate. Hundreds of hours of intensive work, future bread on our table, a hope for many days to come. When I am opening the kiln again and the first rays of light shine inside, connecting the two worlds into a single reality, I know I’ll be surprised.

How natural and beautiful are the earthen vessels that have stood near burning wood! How bitter the fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” can be!

To trust God is to rely on what we hope for and be certain of what we do not se…[i]

 

 

All
I have
is

just
the certainty of hope

Every time I heat up the chimney and place splinters at the mouth of the furnace, I feel deep relief and devotion. It is the same feeling that used to accompany me on my wandering through barren Nordic landscape. It used to come with dusk after my fight with the wilderness and my own self, and smell of wood and smoke, garlic soup and baked bread. A moment of completion, contemplation and a short rest – and a cup of black coffee.

The thin line
between
the sky and the ground

Dancing around the kilns

The furnace feels good now – it slumbers, it’s full of hope. Not a single place inside goes unused. I also feel like I’ve done a good job. Satiated with fantasy, full of hope and expectation. There’s nothing to be added. New adventures are awaiting us. A new day will come with the dawn.

I am lighting a match. The flame jumps lazily from one splinter to another; runs along a piece of wood back and forth. It grows tall, it puts on airs, only to hide fearfully, cower and disappear in a crack. Anyhow, the little flame hides the power of a hero. One must be cautious, must not hurry. Few more seconds and we have a devastating fire here. How many times I’ve been into an unpleasant surprise, hearing a muffled “Bang, bang, bang, bang!” from the inside of the kiln. A tiny mistake, a moment of hesitation – and everything could be lost. A wrong step. A step that cannot be taken back.

I can still hear it. “Bang, bang, bang, bang”, goes the kiln all of a sudden – and my blood runs cold. When I fired my first wood kiln, everyone wanted to help, make themselves useful. Each of the children who spent holidays in our house that summer wanted to bring their own twig. Many twigs. A moment of uncle’s inattention. Bang, bang, bang! The vessels in the kiln cracked and jumped like popcorn, like all the happy kids around.

God is Spirit
spirit is not air

Fire must enter the kiln gently. I slowly push the sticks through a small opening into the furnace. The flames curiously peek inside and run outside to take a breath. They push their way inside, they struggle to catch their breath in the choking smoke like the baby carps in our pond where the sun left no air.

Teapot

The kiln wakes up from a dream. It takes a deep breath and then exhales in irregular intervals, like a woman in labour. Small clouds of smoke shroud it into a veil of expectation. There’s the last long inhale that draws all the hesitation into the chimney. The air is clear again. The life-giving Spirit has descended.

Brother Fire, the unchained element, the good servant and bad master! A precious helper, kind companion, powerful protector. He enters the darkness to lighten it up. Brother creator, the image of God’s presence − and of the judgment day. The kiln. Like the first woman on earth, she is the mother of all. The kiln, the earth’s sister, the womb of all beauty. And me − the potter, the clay figure, the apostle of God.

Very slowly I tend the fire, adding dry beech branches and checking the rising temperature, hour in, hour out. Short dense flames travel through narrow channels that divide the furnace from the chamber for pottery and disappear deep in the thick darkness around this tiny universe. The magical melody of crackling wood accompanies the friar’s lanterns of burning ash that light up and fade like stars on the curtain of this mysterious performance. Like a patient guardian of a great mystery, I turn my internal sight to the glory of the things to come.

And then I hear the strange sound, the quiet voice, the song with no words. The quiet prayer of the blessed one. The voice of the kiln. Darkness is gone. Dark red glow slowly permeates the whole kiln. It’s dawning.

Something new is secretly rising.

Rare glaze colouring

I regularly add wood, now more often: more soft wood for a long flame. The kiln knows how much wood it needs and when. My pulse makes time pass faster. Slowly, the voice of the kiln becomes a passionate psalm. Inside, it is dawning. The colour of the heat changes with the rising temperature. Through a peephole, I observe the festive dance of the flames among the vessels – the way they gently touch them, as if they washed or kissed them.

Above the chimney, a halo shines like a sign. This is the baptism of fire. When the kiln suddenly holds its breath, the whole world stops with it. Waiting.

I add more wood. I relentlessly attend to my queen. For an hour, two hours… Before she catches her breath and gathers power to rise to the peak. Then the temperature slowly rises again. With each log, the chimney lets out a cloud of black smoke as if the rising sun was expelling the ghosts of darkness. The cloud is followed by a victorious tongue-shaped flame, a fire sword. The voice of the kiln is strong, like a swarm of bees inside of a mighty hollow tree. A victorious choral. A hymn of a queen surrounded by a host of angels. The sun inside shines stronger, it is before noon.

The pot,
the kiln
and me

earthenware

Protoporcelain

Long after walling up the kiln with bricks and sheathing the furnace with clay, I still feel the fever of the moment, the excited trembling. The life-giving energy of the kiln that forces itself out, shining through the walls and heats the air around. Like a first time mother in whose belly a new life has moved for the first time, the kiln glows in the dark. I look at it with weary eyes.

Only now it arrived at the moment of fulfilment… earthenware. However, it will take some time before the kiln cools and the mother shares her secret with the world.

 

 

Fire, water
earth
air

me
and

my
God

Such are the gifts of fire, the miraculous transformation of things during which an existing order of things becomes a higher order. When a mere dream becomes reality and one has a moment to see the invisible.

Notes

[i] Bible. Žd. 11,1. Ekumenická rada církví v ČSSR, 1989, str. 213

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