—After Li Young Lee
All of the cities in which I loved you have burned.
Newark went first—driveways marked by silver
puddles under ash-gray hulls, yards turned tragic carnivals—
plumbing like roller coaster tracks wrapped around blackened trees,
and then the charred scaffolding of homes—their ribs
hungry, in the end, for everything we owned,
every evidence of our crimes.
In our defense, before fire marked us, we had no need
for piety. Hell’s Kitchen caught next. Then Brooklyn.
We thought the bay would contain it,
but coastal winds rallied coals to the dry north.
Bushwick’s painted brick murals survived
the inferno, only to be razed by bulldozers.
The soot-grime lingers in the air.
Where we once gazed on ventilation ducts
and Christmas lights, contemplated puddled rain water,
wicker patio chairs, and the shapes of planes in the sky
soon to land at JFK, now there is only gravel.
In New England, the cities burned
as pyres to arrogance, the days we spent
near Boston, where we spooned each other
chowder, combed eelgrass inlets on woolly afternoons,
and hid from the second-day stench
of the dying creature we thought we wanted
out of its shell to make a wind chime, where we prayed
to keep our aging bones from the wet ache of the sea—
impotent like the rain, unable to quench
the fires without a language to speak of misery.
Never again will I love you where the weathered
clapboard cottage inclines toward the dunes, where
we feasted on fried cod and lobster, soaked hot flesh
in butter while bibbed like children—the aberrant pleasure
of eating fish with a view of the water from which it was torn
was like every other commitment oversimplified
by desire—blubber greasing my bare fingers, slipping
under your wedding ring—making it easier, after every
meal, to remove. Only gull colonies watched us overhead.
The cities in which I will never love you again
have been laid to waste. Southern cities cindered
bluish black as they fell to ruin. Birmingham—a relic
of black powder, a field of embers from which smoke rose
defiantly, fisted the sky and God, his host of saints.
When it lit, New Orleans went with pyrotechnics,
the spectacular blue flame of propylene, spot on
for the Big Easy. Our visit to the Quarter was no less
incandescent. Our breakfast nook view of the cathedral
in Jackson Square—oh, how we profaned that window seat!
And the fortune-teller’s prophecy I’d forgotten
until the news reported the fires had spread
to city number three: Beware the heat, the crone
had hissed as we walked away, even though the temperature
hadn’t broken sixty that day. Now, reporters cover
impromptu parades, floats catching fire as riders dance
topless. Bars invent special drinks for the celebration—
one, called the Rad Death and served from a skull-shaped cup,
included two jiggers of fire ball whiskey and God
knows what else. For the camera, Mardi Gras Krewes
dipped bags of beads in gasoline and hurled them flaming
toward the crowds breathing a vapor of dioxin, carbon
monoxide, nicotine, and the mothball tang of hurried
young debutantes in last season’s taffeta, risking
immolation for a chance to be the Krewe’s new Queen.
Gone, too, is most of Memphis—the balcony with a view
of the boarding house’s bathroom, silhouettes
of guests angling brushes to their teeth, fingertips
gliding over shaved faces, boys aiming toy guns
on top of toilet tanks, and how there, in the targeted
light of afternoon between the too-close buildings,
you opened a notebook and read from a poem
you’d written at the Blues museum: the body’s sad
geography regenerates, recalcitrates into pitted bones
made for holding wings. I teased you, asked if you were
thinking of flight because you were going to leave me
or because you sought redemption. Your eyebrows rounded,
and I should’ve known should have known then that you
saw no difference between the two. I should have understood
when everything started burning.
But a waterbird landed on a lamppost at dusk, the moment
a solitary tenor sax player blew his first G sharp on Beale Street
and, foolish, I mistook it for an omen of good fortune,
even though, when the Midwest went red, fire gutted
the Bell Telephone building in which I had loved you,
and downtown Minneapolis gave itself willingly
to the flames after being cordoned off as a collapse zone,
after being emptied of people, as if it were alone
in knowing the wild flammability of loneliness.
And the shop with the old-fashioned printing press
that designed the menus of our favorite barbecue place
where you kissed me while we snuggled in the corner
of a wooden booth—it, too, joined the ruin—fed it
with paper and ink; the barbecue restaurant was also lost
in the carcinogenic blaze of that lacquered booth, in the artless,
thousand-degree grill of raw meat stored in the cooler,
that also cooked the cooler. And the Convention Center,
where we sat on panels together, left separately,
apologizing that we had friends to meet.
After all, you would say, your voice a drum,
your naked chest beneath my head, we are friends.
And then I would remind you that we are flesh
that craves the touch of other flesh, that any true
pleasure in this life attains the heat and spark
of a wildfire’s fever, so ardent were our bodies
that now I see we kindled whole cities to inferno,
to near-annihilation, that we doomed
even Nebraska cornfields to devastation.
Have you ever seen a paper-thin husk blacken
from a flame? It crackles, wisps, and whirls
into blue like a drunk soul tripping home.
One farmer tried to save his fields by cutting
fire breaks with his John Deere, the blaze so hot
it blistered the tractor’s paint. And the fire
soldiered on, sending embers to invade
surrounding fields on the same breeze that helped
most of the farmer’s bees journey to a new home,
after gorging honey for the flight, trained for such an exodus
by their keeper’s scheduled smoke.
But their queen’s wings were clipped for his ease.
They would have tried to carry her, but she was doomed to perish
in the field—flightless, abandoned by her mates, surrounded
only by the remnants of their sweetness.
But even in death she was regal. To burn is better
than to wink out in a winter sleep.
The redundancy of Nevada, broke and hungover.
The redundancy of the hand-painted sign,
American owned, tacked to the cracked column
in the entry of the crumbling white motel
where I see the old cowboy asleep
at the front desk and think,
Tell me how you’ve come apart,
and I will tell you who you are.
This depraved world burns a morsel at a time
in different measure, but it all turns to ash nonetheless.
In Albuquerque, a white curtain
billows from a charred window, the blood
of its rose pattern against the black.
A man stumbles down an alley, finds a coin
on the ground that imprints a head in his hand
when he palms it too soon after fire passes.
The ruins of cities in which you loved me, too,
could pass for gingerbread cutouts
left too long in the oven by a harried mother.
It’s not FEMA we’re waiting for, but children.
Instead of squeezing icing from a tube, homeowners
buzzard the rubbish, stand shrunken in shrapnel lots.
The work of a life reduced to dust and crockery shards.
They sift like anthropologists of their own decline,
immigrants living out of a piece of luggage.
On one San Francisco block, survivors stagger
through the smoke and ash to harvest chestnuts
roasted in their shells when the fires raged.
Converging at the base of one unusually robust tree,
they are dark figures in the fog sucking sweetmeat,
some moaning from the unexpected boon.
Up the road, a coyote lopes between the manzanitas,
mourning what he’s come to know about humans,
that they can’t be trusted with the gift of hunger.
The cities in which I loved you have perished
in debauched oblivion. The Pacific Northwest
and its sea glass beaches, suggesting
to us a fantasy of transformation:
that the jagged waste of centuries past
could morph into someone else’s soft treasure—
a pendant, a lamp, the teardrops on a chandelier.
All of the beaches and debris disintegrated by the blaze.
A shattered neon sign points to the wreck
of a bar I used to love named Home.
We leave Oregon for Seattle through the mountains,
stop on tribal grounds for gas.
You call to reserve a hotel that’s not on fire yet.
In the general store, I’m drawn to a shelf
of hand-carved figurines. I buy one in the shape
of a bird, a sea hawk whose wing tips are just beginning
to unfurl at the bottom of the block of wood.
I find you around the corner dragging
from an American Spirit, unaware you’d taken up
smoking. Seattle is ravaged, you say. No vacancy.
And we know beneath the smoky silence that follows
that we’ve always been a war zone waiting to erupt.
Every gas pipe, every toxic beam of pressure
treated wood, an armory in waiting.
Every city, a giant hookah. Take a hit, inhale
the sediment of your neighbors’ lives.
The danger of proximity is that we burn together.
And the news wastes no more words on whose fault it is.
Back to just the facts, ma’am—number of dead,
location of shelters, flow of traffic on evacuation routes.
Everyone is too tired for in-fighting or pointing fingers.
And if we were to realize the trouble was nothing
metaphysical, that we’ve been wired incorrectly,
living in hazardous electrical conditions all along,
politicians would call for regulations of torches
and a ban on incoming immigrants because some
might bring flint and stone with them across our borders.
In the midst of this folly, I turn to you
in the bed of the garret apartment we’ve rented,
as the news rolls footage of ladders stretched
near breaking, as firefighters soak the greedy glow
of high-rise office buildings, and eggs roast
under chickens roosting on apartment rooftops.
I turn to you and trace with my finger the cursive
tattoo beneath your armpit: For what mortal
has ever heard the voice of the living God
speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived?
A mischief of rats descends the fire escape,
their violent scurry like wings as we begin to make love.
We can smell smoke somewhere close.
In the street below, a vehicle stops, a man snaps
orders about camera angles. You don’t stop
your search for God inside me, the angry, jealous
God from your youth, the bitter God of pain
and sacrifice, demanding relentless devotion.
You’re so close. You’re like the ghosts
of the holy when the churches finally burn,
their iron sighs of release.
Then, like in a nightmare when you dream
of the nightmare, when you know the building’s beams
above and beneath will never hold,
bricks tumble like a waterfall, and hell-fire
is on my skin. In my dream, we clear the door
of the building as a bathtub drops through the ceiling.
I wake as you press against me, cradling my breasts.
Across the street, some overworked mechanism
of a fire truck sparks and catches flame.
No matter what future history books might try
to claim, the light from our cities on fire at night
could not be confused with morning’s dawn.
For daylight, the contrast of black and white
was too severe. Survivors rioted, but with nothing
left to loot, law enforcement let them protest in peace.
Perhaps it was your own manner of passive resistance
when you left to get gas and never came back.
I found your note, explaining nothing, and in grief
roamed the city alone, combed through words
and memories, tried to comprehend the moment
it became a lie. But the only untruth
was the mall map claiming, You are here,
when you were most certainly gone.
There, in front of a map that put me
in a Macy’s (now obliterated,
now one wondrous skylight to the heavens),
I threw the sea hawk figurine into the abyss.
No more talismans. No more omens.
Only the real work of looking in the mirror every day.
I am here, I thought, ready to face the burnt-out
ends of our lusty daze. And I know a few things
with certainty: grief is a time bomb in men.
You will lie and pretend you didn’t openly crave
the destruction, that you didn’t know from the start
we would end in flame, take entire populations with us.
Now, the bed in which I’ve almost convinced myself
I never loved you is the one I share with other men who dare not
speak to me of love. They leave, and in my weaker moments
I hurl your name against the frosted windows of empty rooms
to hear the sounds of it in my mouth again.
I cannot hate you. I cannot fault how little you
understand desire’s compulsion, the long teeth
of its memory. I hope you find sanctuary, some life’s purpose
that helps pass the time between loving and dying.
As for me, I want to go quickly. In the middle
of something mundane. A last gesture—
my head’s half turn, eager to move untethered
into the feathered next. And some years from now,
as you walk the dog along some country road, you will notice
the leaves have turned the color of my hair.
Or as you trail your wife down the aisle
of the store, gray and balding, pushing the cart,
the one always with a knot of twine around its wheel,
you will pause in front of a display of my favorite apples,
and you will think of me—my name, still
the only chapter in your history worth telling,
soon to be a bitter blossom on her tongue.
Able Muse Write Prize for Poetry, 2018 ▪ Winner
“‘Wildfire’ is a poem that rampages through the emotional and geographical territory of two lovers, chronicling a trajectory that parallels subsequent fires occurring in the cities they passed through. The love between them ultimately burns out ‘like every other commitment oversimplified by desire.’ This poem dramatizes in a blast of persuasive, literally searing detail the chaotic energy of a relationship gone wrong. It is rich with vivid imagery, and its narrative rides on its own melting, as Frost said of an ice cube on a hot stove. The reader is swept along in the story of a love that consumes everything in its path, leaving in its wake burning cities and ashen hindsight.”—J. Allyn Rosser, Final Judge, 2018 Able Muse Write Prize (for poetry) on this winning poem, “Wildfire” by Lynn Marie Houston.