Fire Without Witness




Fire Without Witness is an epic poem that centers on the world of Michelangelo as revealed through his painting of The Sistine Ceiling. While painting the different panels, he reveals stories of his time, his life, and through his dreams, the future. As the panels are painted, the prophets and sibyls and objects of Creation come alive, unknown to Michelangelo, and tell their stories. The poem presents two skewed realities. And while at times the Biblical and Mythic voices see Michelangelo, they never reach his awareness. They barely interact, in brushing contacts we alone witness.

The poem follows, in sequence, the way Michelangelo actually painted the frescos on the Ceiling. The order of painting here is what I see as most logical. Other suggested sequences exist, due to the uneven progression of his work, but it is clear he painted the story of Creation in reverse order, moving from Noah to Adam to God creating the elements, winding his way back to the beginning. It took him three years to paint the Ceiling, not including the border of lunettes, and the poem is broken into three parts or movements, 1509, 1510, and 1511, each part into sections representing the panels painted during those years—25 sections in all.

It took me ten years to write the poem, which seems now a painting itself. It seems a vision of that rim between the human and the infinite, where our body of sense almost leaves us, than settles and hardens into what we are. And when dealing with the infinite, all comes down to one encompassing, unnamable source, one fire without witness. As Michelangelo himself put it, “What is in the very center is always free.”


Moses Has Trouble With God's Instructions     

Moses wants to return to the living, then recalls, after retrieving the Tablets the second time, his trouble with God’s instructions how to make the candlestick holy.


It seems odd: the things I remember most
are circumstances of my deep forgetting.
When the Tabernacle was near completion
I climbed the Mount for Your instructions.
You were quite specific. You even showed me
how to hold, how to bless, how to maintain.
I focused on every flash of light
You washed across my brain.
But as I walked back down the mountain,
as I saw the people milling, as I heard
them discuss their problems, their squabbles
of whose children were aging better,
whose parents acted younger,
whose lovers were more loving
in more imaginative ways—
I forgot how to build.
I stopped and cleared things out,
certain it would all re-enter.
Nothing. Blank. Gone. I was enraged.
I couldn’t pull a corner of its image.
The carrier was barren. I had no choice.
I stomped around, kept on stalling,
but finally started up again.
This time You went more slowly.
I repeated each part deeply,
put every other issue of my life in the basin.
I descended to the world again, repeating Your instructions
to the rhythm of my descending. I made it to the marketplace
where a young woman was washing clothes.
The sun enlarged her bosom
and splashed her arms yellow.
I found her sudden and alluring.
I carried on and heard her clothes
slosh against the stone. And then,
I shut my sense, and let her go
to nothing. But she had rinsed
all Your instructions.
Again, I was just empty.
I rushed back to find her.
Of course, she’d vanished.
I calmed, tried not to panic,
closed my eyes, began to imagine the slow descending,
the deep repeating. Not a trace! Twice more,
for different reasons, the same thing happened.
No matter what I tried, it escaped me.
I couldn’t properly seize the idea,
could not form a clear conception.

There are only two conclusions:
the thing remembered will choose itself
its channel of remembering.
The light will choose the day,
the heart will choose the special words
or warmth with which they’re said.
But some things defy construction,
defy being anchored in the world:
the light refuses to be carried,
the flame itself is brilliant
when using up the stick.


“A daring, myth-making poem with unforgettable moments.”
Publishers Weekly

“The whole of this giant poem is a perfectly amazing dream realized, and I do congratulate the poet with all my heart. I am startled by his ability to annihilate time—this is both timeless, and right now. The great scope never minimized the individual, vivid episodes. This poem is going to steadily gather recognition.”
Josophine Jacobsen, Former Consultant to the Library of Congress

Fire Without Witness is remarkable in its ambition and conception and cumulative weight. I can recognize the depth of experience and breadth of vision at work, or at play, in the poem; and can share the author’s wonder at the verve and intricacy of what came his way. There are uncanny moments throughout—as when the Moon or the Brazen Serpent speak, or Michelangelo opens his throttle to the fullest.”
James Merrill, Pulitzer Prize Winner

“This long poem must be a delight and confirmation for members of Euro-American culture who are thirsty for contacts with their own key stories and mythologies. The dramatic and original re-tellings in these poetic episodes are both workmanlike and inspired—see the Dream of Eve, or David and Bethsheba. And much of it comes up from the bedrock of mind and myth. I am moved and challenged by this mighty project.”
Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize Winner

“An imaginative tour de force in which Nepo has created a universe of the mind.
Paul Grondahl, Times Union

“One of the most ambitious and finely wrought poetry works of our age.”
Troy Record

“The work is startling because the figures are so alive that they actually create themselves.”
Mildred Magazine

“Mark Nepo’s Fire Without Witness puts us in the presence of genius—the creative spirit embodying itself in our world through one profoundly gifted and dedicated human being.”
Ed Tick, Hudson Valley Writers Guild

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