Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 42, June 2014)

Elizabeth Willis
Notes from and on a Landscape: Hell, Fire, and Brimstone

A version of this essay was presented at Naropa University in a week focused on climate change (“Hellfire, Drought, and Brimstone: A New Eco-Poetics”) in July 2013.

Brimstone—or sulphur—is at the center of the discourse of infernal punishment and occult power.

It’s the part of us that’s subject to ignition. It is a kindler of rage.

When brimstone is used to set people on fire outside the gates of redemption, their suffering makes the exaltation of the righteous appear better than it is.

Some people are content to place their enemies in an imaginary torment, but there are also the very real histories of napalm, of lynching, of burning at the stake. The practice of tarring and feathering has had a vivid life on this continent.

Setting one’s enemies on fire is a very old idea.

Perhaps this is why the setting of one’s own body on fire has been viewed as the most extreme and symbolically precise voicing of outrage and resistance.

According to John Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1718): “Sulphur ... is very soft and unctious, and the lightest part of Bodies next to Spirit.”

Sulphur lozenges, soaps, ointments, and baths have been used to treat asthma, hemmorrhoids, and disorders of the skin.

You feel the side effects before you feel the cure.

Sulphur was said to fill the air when the righteous prayed for a witch.

Curious women and those who resorted to begging have been accused of witchcraft because they asked inappropriate questions or, like poets, muttered when they walked.

Where is there religion. There is always religion. (Gertrude Stein.)

It wasn’t until the 15th century that witches appeared on broomsticks and thus were linked irrevocably to domestic labor and disobedience.

All of Europe was threatened by the ingeniousness of this repurposing—the use of one tool to do something previously inconceivable.

Saint Joan was referred to as The Maid. Even after she led an army.

When she was on trial, her inquisitors pointed out that she had tried to escape and that God had not delivered her from her enemies. “A prisoner,” she said, “has the right to attempt escape.”

She said, “The voice is a light.”

She said, “I can’t recant.”

She said, “Even fire won’t change my mind.”

Bertholt Brecht said he had nothing to say to those who did not already know that the world was on fire.

Last year more of the United States was burning than in any other year on record—7 million acres before the end of August. Kenya and Mongolia were on fire. Every state in Australia was on fire. The peat fires ignited during Siberia's 90-degree afternoons went underground last winter and resurfaced with the thaw.

How in this world can anyone be excluded from the discourse of fire?

Those of us who know that the world is on fire have ridden shotgun on the brooms of crones and degenerates, opium eaters and speakers in tongues, poets and tellers of fact, excommunicants and sodomites, insider artists and citizens of the outer dark, malcontents and depressives, urban farmers and dwellers in tents.

Like the Maid, we have the right to transform the disciplinary structures of our world with sulphurous language. To fight one fire with another.


Keeping in mind a history of the occult, I want to consider more broadly that which is occluded, hidden, overlooked.

Think for a moment about what obstructs vision. Our vision, as a species and as poets. What distracts us from looking more deeply. What ideological and imaginative barriers lead to an acceptance of the entrenched binaries of party politics, of gender, of race, of religion, of class, of technoculture. What interferes with wilder patterns of inquiry?

How invested are we, individually and collectively, in the concept of hell—or even in a hell-making device that forces certain individuals to pay for their crimes? And what kinds of progressive thinking does this block, as we live among each other’s crimes, and in the case of global issues like climate change, pay for them collectively, albeit unevenly.

We—specifically and generally, as creatures and fellow-participants within larger systems—cannot afford for the network of resources that binds us together to be broken by actuarial science.

Reduce your carbon footprint and your mind will follow. (George Clinton.)

It is not enough to recognize the systematic and willful destruction of “our” world, a place where the possessive pronoun can imply radically divergent value systems. Whatever we mean by the “world” is under constant revision from within and without. But recognizing the default settings of this place and time may be the beginning of claiming the right to revise our relation to various resources. Remapping any future requires us to seek out, consider, and re-value the perceptual apparatuses and experience of other species, living and dead. To see up close and differently. And at the same time to stand back far enough to see the disciplinary patterns and liberational pathways that are not immediately evident when we view this world as simply chaotic.

I’m thinking in particular of two obstructive concepts—or structuring beliefs—that are often treated as immutable.

The first is a paternalistic view of species relation. Although Darwin suggested—and Lorine Niedecker reminds us—that no species is inherently higher or lower than another, it has been taken as a given that humans are at the top of the evolutionary chain. Are we content to build a lonely planet on which we are the de facto arbiters of the future? What can we learn from the behavior and language patterns of other species; by observing how they survive—or don’t survive—the death drive of capitalist expansion and human dominance?

Redwoods, for example, can be on fire for years without dying. A tree in California named Methusaleh is 4800 years old. There are trees in England that go back to the age of the druids. They can survive almost anything but a chainsaw.

If a 5000-year-old tree spoke would we understand what it said? Or would we calculate its potential effect on “housing starts”? (Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Redwoods are rhizomatic. The unit is the grove, not the tree.

This creature speaks so slowly, hardly anyone seems to notice.

What can be learned from the symbiotic world evolving hundreds of feet above us, entire ecosystems of plants and animals that coexist in redwood culture and that never touch the ground?

If we were to relinquish the current operating system of human supremacy, what could other species teach us about surviving as non-dominant entities?

The residual presence of a first-, second-, and third-world model of economic and cultural development is similarly problematic. Built on the assumption that a whitewashed version of western culture holds the duty, right, and privilege of shaping the political and environmental patterns of the rest of the “undeveloped” or “developing” world, it claims for the “developed” sector an unproblematically empathic relation to others, by which they always remain “other.”

The American State Department has a lot to learn from the Somali refugees who have dry-farmed tiny gardens within overcrowded desert camps, and from communities that live off the grid of satellite communication. What if, instead of thinking that the world would be improved by cell reception and access to factory foods, we sought ways to un-develop, to consider differently the landscape that ATT forgot—or that didn’t fit into Walmart’s economy of scale?

What would the future sound like if the struggle to survive on limited resources, the necessity of balancing self-sufficiency and interdependency were distributed more broadly?

What is being said in the sensorial worlds beyond the reach of contemporary linguistics?

What are the sinkholes in Johannesberg and rural Pennsylvania saying to each other?

What does Fukushima mean on a planet whose surface is 71% ocean?

Can we spatially and temporally reorient the world map so that North America no longer appears in the upper left-center—the place on the page from which all else follows? Can we revise our relation to those who placed it there?

Our values shift according to our language. (William Carlos Williams.)

By passing through a fiery word, one thing can be turned into another. A civil war, a coup, a revolution, a liberation, a takeover.

How willing are we to live by the consequences of our own thought?

How far will we allow poetry to take us?


At the institution where I teach, the library was recently “weeded” to make room for new acquisitions. Among the items withdrawn were books entitled: Ideas are Weapons; Population and World Power; A Handy Guide for Beggars; What Are We For?; Liberalism Fights On; and The Red Executive.

I would like to speak in favor of the obsolete, the withdrawn, the hidden, the unread, and the cast off.

I would like to read The Sorcery of Color by W.E.B. DuBois, which was rejected by William Sloane, his editor at Henry Holt, in 1940, after which the manuscript was lost, though it eventually resurfaced in DuBois’s papers at UMass Amherst.

What can we learn at the dump?

What can we learn from those who survive as gleaners?

The fact of global warming and other environmental realities push us out of boundaried identities and demand other forms of engagement and relation.

I think there is still a lot to learn from Occupy—about what structures can emerge from collective action and how they may be extended to include other commitments.

Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas. (William Carlos Williams.)

So much depends/ upon / the stone-cold generosity we have often been permitted to encounter in the wheelbarrow of discarded arts.


When “history” is used as a verb, it means to write, depict, narrate, or recount. When it first appeared in 5th-century Latin, historiare meant to seek by questioning.

The West has been witness to America writing itself, with the backhand of conquest, from right to left, east to west, clothed in a rhetoric as “natural” as the planet’s turning.

The pen with which this country is historied is not mightier than its sword; it is with a sword that it learned to write.

Such power is both real and imaginary, as the mission of “real” power is to lay hold upon the imagination.

The Oregon Trail, the Lincoln Highway, the Trail of Tears, the Northwest Passage.

These lines too are written.

At what cost do we separate thought from feeling?

What acts of will and imagination remain in the uncombed weeds of the past, beyond the histories we have been conditioned to repeat?

Compare the populations of private prisons and college classrooms.

Do you begin to see a little what America is what American religion is what American war is. (Gertrude Stein.)

In most western frontier towns the wooden churches have burned or collapsed, the general store has been leveled to make room for the poured concrete of a chain supermarket with its city block of parking spaces, the theatres have been converted into senior centers or have filled with pigeons before one agency or another shuts them down.

The AAA guide for Wyoming lists more jails as historical sites than any other category of tourist attraction.

Jails were made to last.

By what sulphurous art may poetry, the “true fiction,” labor to take them down?