A Belief in Alchemy

Though we cannot stop the night from turning
Toward dawn, nor change what is to what should be,
Though we cannot stop the stars from burning,
Nor make the cripple walk, the blind man see,
Though we cannot save love against the grave,
Nor make a flame to light the great abyss
Of hopelessness, nor take back pain we gave
Even unintentioned, still there is this:

One hand may another touch, and one heart
May in this darkened world find another;
These two may strike, stone against stone, and start
A fire that two alone may discover,
A fire that burns beyond the wit of art,
A fire that turns stranger into lover.


A fire that turns stranger into lover
Sears reason, becomes a conflagration,
A heart's great rage which no sense can smother,
Blood-hot dream, blaze of imagination.
The dark itself seems to burn, transmuted
By our longing, as if what we dare
Give each to each is proof undisputed
That lead can turn to gold, flesh to air.

So we dream of disappearing and blow
On our fragile spark, fearful of its burning,
Consuming all breath save you and me.
Still we strike flesh to flesh, believe the glow
A red stone to keep the night from turning
Toward dawn, changing what is to what should be.

Richard H. Behm

RICHARD H. BEHM is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. His poems have been published in such leading journals as Poetry Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and, most recently, The Sewanee Review (Spring 2012). In Alchemies and Illuminations: Selected Poems 1976-2006, his "unashamedly self-published" collection of eighty-six previously published poems, he writes: "At this point in my life and career as a writer, I still believe in the 'well-cast line,' the crafted poem that shines from within." "A Belief in Alchemy" (first published in Plains Poetry Journal in 1982), is reprinted here by his kind permission.

Other poems by Behm online are "What the Moon Knows" (Poetry Magazine, September 2001; also in Alchemies and Illuminations) and the following four (all but "Meditation" are in that collection): "A Fire of Spices," "A Good Friday," "Meditation on Coyotes," and "Science and Imagination" (Sewanee Review, Spring 2012).

Editor's Note: I first encountered "A Belief in Alchemy" in 1982, in the inaugural issue of the excellent little quarterlyPlains Poetry Journal (now defunct)--which was characterized by its editor, Jane Silverman, as "a magazine for traditional poetry; that is, for poetry that uses the best from the past." Richard Behm's poem does just that--which is why, in part, it has remained etched in memory all these years. -- Louis Torres

January 2015