“Fire Season” comes early in the second section of a lyric-narrative sequence of poems, a “memoir in poetry” that attempts to explore facets of a woman speaker’s experience in a relationship: her responses to her partner’s behavior, arising from a complicated personal history and often mysterious motivations; and her perception of her own responses within the external and internalized pressures operating on both individuals. Details of the environment stand out: nervous movements of feral cats, coral snakes curled in pine duff outside the cabin door, grit and ash flakes floating in the too-dry air, wildfires encircling the chaparral-covered hills where the woman is staying, smoke choking the atmosphere, and evacuation stand-by alerts. These external threats converge with the cryptic, hand-written messages (gestured in italics) that signal fire in the air—fire within the psychic air—that the speaker has received from her partner.
“Fire Season” occurs as these characters are discovering new aspects of their relationship within a shifting power dynamic—and within another landscape, beyond the one where they first met and explored possibilities with each other: in “that narrow bed all winter / on the other coast.” The first letter the speaker receives from her lover: in this decade before email and smart-phone texting, she has seen his handwriting before, but this is her first encounter with his written efforts both to reveal and to conceal his circumstances and his motivations—as much as he understands them…or allows himself to understand them.
This poem gestures toward overlays of literal and emotive terms to evoke the fraught atmosphere of the situation: the speaker’s attraction to but troubling uncertainties about this man, and the not-yet entirely comprehensible sources of her doubts in the overwhelm of circumstances. The man confesses—or does he boast?—about running from situations, from himself. Or does he seek out and court psychic danger, serially visiting an old lover and then the speaker? His arrival as wildfires close in around the hillside settlement, and the couple’s reckless love-making when they should be preparing to evacuate, are actions chronologically foreshortened for the sake of poetic economy and heightening of dramatic tension. Will the couple escape with their lives? Will anything be resolved?
The tercet structure of the poem intends to reflect the nervous tension and uncertainty at work here, enacted in a mix of terse sentence fragments with simple declarative and more complex, periodic sentences enjambed from one line to the next and between one tercet and the next. In his book, The Poem’s Heartbeat: a Manual of Prosody (Copper Canyon Press, 2nd edition 2008), Alfred Corn notes that some poets have called the tercet an “unstable” unit because it lacks the “evenly balanced support felt to be present” in even-numbered stanzas like couplets, quatrains and their even-lined multiples. Corn observes “having that only three lines to rest on makes the tercet roll forward into the next stanza and the next…” (88). The way in which the final line of each tercet falls forward, or “rolls forward” as Corn calls it, across the double space into the next tercet keeps a narrative poem like this one moving right along—much as these characters, caught in an active fire zone, are supposed to be moving themselves out of danger.
I prefer to use the term “dynamic” to signal the inherent momentum that keeps the rhetorical and imagistic burden of each tercet moving from one stanza to the next, as Corn describes it. But in the context of this poem, “unstable” aptly gestures toward this poem’s dramatic situation: characters caught on a hillside surrounded by lines of wildfire, uncertain whether to hold fast or to flee—from their surroundings or from each other. Moreover, these tercets alternate between left-margin justified and indented one tab space: like dance moves; or the lover’s attempts to side-step the speaker’s desire for a more direct self-declaration from him; or the speaker’s hesitation to speak her own mind, her willingness to suspend her urge toward “wisdom”…or at least greater clarity. The project of this poem is to enact circumscribed movement and unresolved tension within this enthralling but unsettling moment—as urgency and pathos, subterfuge and fascination, hover within the dynamic stasis of the predicament in which these two lovers find themselves, their “different bodies not quite giving [themselves] away.”
Read “Fire Season” in our current issue, or listen via SoundCloud.