“Keep it lit until you learn to glow”
The two sections of Christina Thatcher’s collection How to Carry Fire are set in Pennsylvania and Wales respectively. The book takes the form of short, predominantly narrative poems, many presenting flashbacks of cinematic clarity, acetylene intensity. The first section follows a girl/young woman growing up in Pennsylvania, in a family challenged by financial hardship, where addiction, abuse and anger are mirrored – in the main protagonist, at least – by determination, a sense of responsibility, compassion and remarkable resilience. She also displays an understandable appetite for renewal, regeneration, and, above all, love. These she finds, although troubled by self-recrimination at not having been able to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ her drug-dependent brother, and by an irrational, post-trauma fear that she might, in some way, have been complicit in his addiction.
In the first part of the book, the reader rapidly becomes aware that there has been a devastating house-fire, probably resulting from drug use, if not arson. This spreads a shadow across the family as a whole, but also casts shade forward, to haunt the second section, where tragedy and trauma are translated, as is the habit of PTSD, into fear and anxiety … as difficult to shift as any addiction.
The second section follows the protagonist’s ‘flight’ to the UK, with ensuing themes of learning (an important word in the collection), growing self-knowledge, attempted resolution of past trauma, and the beginning of a new relationship, fuelled by passion, where trust can flourish and anxiety can be challenged. Recovery is painful and partial but there are glimpses of a happier present and the hope of a promising future, fuelled and fired by a startling creativity … and love.
The poems that ‘carry the fire’ are fresh-minted, spare and beautifully controlled, with an eye and ear for quality. There are many examples of inspired word selection where vocabulary works overtime. A notable example is in the late poem Subtext – a poem about the legacy of poverty, neglect and ignorance … where the protagonist learns that she
“… must eat
green leaves until your insides gleam, pop enough blueberries
to grow neurons … shed your cells
like thousands of colourful scales. Only then will you be new.”
In this poem – as much about healing and regeneration, as about healthier eating – ‘cells’ double up as lock-ups (associated with her brother) as well as her own anatomical building blocks, and ‘scales’ serve as the easily-shed outer covering of aquatic creatures – recurring symbols in the collection – as well as tyrannical measurers of superfluous pounds.
Ingenious line breaks are another notable feature of the poems, often intensifying meaning (fanning flames) or intentionally subverting it (acting like firebreaks). Here is an example from the early poem Sentry:
“I was ready:
camping all those nights
on the living room floor, broken
door locks rattling.
In another example, from the later poem Detox Passage, we find:
“You tell the pastor you can do it. You believe
you can do it. God is with you, my son.
The jerks in your arms and teeth begin
to go. All you had to do was rid yourself
The narrative impels the reader through the collection at pace, but rereading pays dividends, enabling slower-burning embers of nuance to be detected, repeated motifs and recurring images to be registered … for example, those associated with birds and animals (particularly aquatic creatures, of which there are many in the collection).
Loss is another key theme of the book. From the first poem, Insurance Report, an inventory is attempted, following the disastrous house-fire:
“the stained glass unicorn
that Sioux tribe necklace
our grandfather’s final brick”
The items tell of identity, heritage, ancestry and uncertain dreams – impossible to put a value on, but priceless in respect of shared experience, memories, inheritance and hope.
“We cried out for these totems:
Who are we without them? Who are we?
Only the inspectors answered back:
But what were they worth?”
We only have hints about the start of the fire: ‘the burn of bad people who’d let themselves in” (Sentry) but we recognize that the main protagonist will henceforth, be destined to remain ‘on duty’, since tragedy could happen again. She is called to be an “Ever watchful daughter” for ever-present, anxiety-inducing, danger. Such hair-triggers are the plight of any PTSD victim:
“ ….. It’s your job, house canary.
Just watch the door and call
if we need to run.”
We note the use of canary, as a caged predictor of air quality … and cannot fail to compare this role with that of her ‘parrot-brother’ later in the collection. Birds abound in this book. Unsurprisingly, in a collection with fire as its primary focus, temperature is also a recurring theme, as much to do with intensity of emotion as with the house-fire itself. A poker, associated with encouraging fire to flare, is also a potent symbol of family dysfunction and abuse.
“That weakness, years later, led you,
hot-tempered, to the fireplace,
to the poker you slid across
my mother’s neck,
pinning her to the wall
until her breath became so shallow
you cooled, and when you slept
she gathered up her things
and just enough courage
to brave the cold
and leave you
In this poem, Making Fire, we witness fire ignited and kept stoked. We detect weakness, hot temper, a poker used as a weapon, followed by rapid cooling and the braving of the cold, Pictorially, the poem shows the gradual loss for words and the dying of love.
In Detox Passage we are presented with a clear picture of the paraphernalia of drug-taking (spoons everywhere) associated with the cause of the fire. We also note the inefficacy of faith and deliverance to counteract addiction. In Relapse, with few words and the utmost clarity, we see the hallmarks of the addict: the hiding, the lying, the secrecy, the thrill of anticipation, the tension, the temporary relief. The dark humour of Becoming an Astronaut presents us with the utter improbability of the brother ever attaining the qualities and qualifications necessary for such a career – as opposed to being on a high, getting out of his skull, being spaced out: “Instead: you picked up a needle and took yourself to the moon”. Hearing My Brother’s Name on the News comes as no surprise, given what we know. Yet this short poem is, paradoxically, a poem of happier times too, in the yard in summer, when the brother tellingly “makes his shirt a basket for fireplace twigs” and teaches his sister ‘to calm / chickens: holding their wings tight between / soft palms” It is, on the face of it, a lovely scene … where fire only gets a passing mention. But that is enough.
In Vigilante, the main protagonist becomes theoretical accomplice, complicit (in dreams) with collecting tools, a “torch, gasoline, glyphosate” but, unlike the men in this family, who never seem strong enough, she is “strong enough to carry them” … to a deadly cocktail of countries associated with narcotics and conflict. In her dream she surveys ‘thousands / of hectares covered in poppy heads” and she, too, plays with fire “I light the torch: / throw flames with the expert aim / of a forest patrolman.” There is again a sense of complicity, shared responsibility, shared guilt, when she might instead have had “the power to save” her brother from his dangerous dependency. In Rescuing a Hummingbird, the bird is associated with him, helpless and tripping … and, again, her sense of failure in trying to rescue him:
“Everyone else leaves it banging
its tiny beak against the glass,
its high-speed heart whirring
into body rippling panic.”
“I have no answers but take
the risk – cup my hands and coo:
it’s okay, little one, it’s okay,
as the bird terror-spreads
its wings through my fingers
until we reach the open door
and it flits into the jungle trees,
a flash of iridescent green”
In an Improper Kindness, her sense of failure in saving her brother sinks to a new low. She both regrets, and accepts as necessary, the kindness, compassion and understanding she shows him – improper though these could be regarded. She releases him to ‘halcyon’ … as she previously did the hummingbird. In Nodding off (a symptom of the opiate addict), she imagines him, not drawn towards the psychedelia of halcyon, nor as fragile and frantic as the hummingbird, nor as an astronaut-hero … but as a bathetic caged parrot with shrinking pupils, ‘miles away’. Chillingly, she visualises putting him to sleep – “sliding a pillowcase”, shroud-like and “the same weight as a body bag”, over his parrot prison. We wonder whether death will be the only rescue she will be able to offer him.
Earlier in the collection, the sister is more than once drawn to, and warned of, danger. In Temptation, it’s a salamander (“These colors mean / it’s poisonous … / watch out for them”) and she is no stranger to physical pain, as when her uncle roughly tugs her arm from the danger “so hard / the socket opened / briefly releasing the bulb / of a shoulder”. She was thus drawn to the threat, then saved from it, but was hurt and damaged in the process. Similarly, in Learning to Escape she is drawn to a jellyfish which she wants to rescue … as she does her brother, but our first view of him is urinating on her jellyfish sting, attempting to rescue her:
“… unzipped his pants to help with the poison,
but before his yellow stream broke, I wriggled free
and ran as fast as I could towards the sea.”
Running towards water, and the rescue/salvation it offers. is another repeating idea in the book, foreshadowing her crossing the Atlantic – an opportunity to escape the trauma of the past. The phrase “to help with the poison” is ironic, given the liability the brother is to prove. But another irony is that, in running away from the jellyfish and her brother’s attempt to deaden the sting, she runs toward the sea … where there could be even more jellyfish, more stings. Other themes in this book are surely blind panic … and blind self-destruction.
Fire and water are arguably the most important metaphors in the collection, working at various levels, potentially cancelling each other out but also standing as inextinguishable elements in their own right. Fire at various times symbolises anger, violence, addiction, destruction and loss … but also love, passion, desire and creative brilliance. Water in this collection has the power not only to quench fire, pain and memory, but it also enables buoyancy, escape and freedom. Water (the Atlantic) has to be crossed in order to begin the healing process, caused by fire. But it is also across the ocean that the fire of new love, passion and creative power begins to flare. Water, then, supports life, and facilitates new life. Representations of life, in various forms, are present throughout the collection, with a whole ‘inventory’ of creatures, especially spotlighting dangerous animals to which the main protagonist – let us assume it is the poet – is seen both drawn to and fleeing from. The effect of exposure to all of this, on a girl growing into young adulthood, creates a tender vulnerability, reactivity and alertness … but simultaneously an admirable resilience that is able to fan the flame of a fierce creative talent.
But, despite all the above, her childhood was not unremittingly awful. Ode to Ottsville is a delight of detail and sensory pleasures: “to splash barefoot in Tohickon Creek, / feel a hundred toe-hungry tadpoles wriggle,” “the fatness / of a sudsy sponge in my hands,” “leather oil soaking into my fingers”. There is gustatory appeal (waffle cones, ice pops, “plump blackberries from back pastures, / their juice staining my unwashed mouth for days”), olfactory reminiscences (“tire rubber stiff in my nose”), an assault of colour accompanied by ‘oohs’ of pleasure (“cool blue of a too-early morning”) and auditory memories (“sleeping hens’ soft cooing” … chickens recur throughout the collection). Fear, at this time, at least, was “just bats emerging from the paddock barn”. A rare, happy flashback of a poem.
In the important title poem How to Carry Fire, we are invited to “conjure every fire you have ever read about … journals flaking / in the hot shell of your bedroom … / a furnace” and again we are reminded of the poker “your father pressed into / your mother’s neck.” The poem continues “Take what those flames / can give you. Feel heat enter your stomach.” We feel that this is all a precursor to the creative process. Here we are introduced to the idea that as well as effecting loss, fire can also ignite ardour and passion … and we must not quench it. We met the terrible poker before … but now it has the potential to become, in the hands of a consummate poet, an instrument to stoke the fire of her art. She tells herself – and doubtlessly her brother – “to stay wary” and “never let the light / go out, keep it lit until you learn to glow.”
In What the Newspapers left out, we hear for the first time about ‘that final call for me / from across the ocean: / Bring the fire with you. / Leave everything else behind.’ Here, is an indication that her escape (by water again) will take her to a new life in the UK … and she is told to ‘bring the fire’ – to make something out of previous disaster … something creative, such as a poetry collection of power.
In How to build a boat she is preparing to run to the sea … or is building an ark to flee from peril, to rescue herself … or is about to launch a boat in which to explore new worlds. But before she leaves she takes My last American Road Trip and entertains second thoughts about leaving for “some unknown country” admitting “I am afraid”. But, on learning about the geological connection with Wales: “rocks … broken apart over millennia / … once connected / to Wales, Pembrokeshire, famous / for its stretching coast, just like home” she bravely continues with her plan. Before long (in Transport Decisions), she is in a taxi, in the UK, lying about her parents, her “healthy” brother (“We’re close”) … and a fake picture of “a happy American family, / shining like polished apples, / clean as Sunday clothes.”
In Keeping warm (my favourite poem of the collection) she notes that:
“Wales is a small coat
with deep pockets, so I plunge
my hands in to search
for treasures …”
“…They are so much deeper
than I thought—these pockets
made of Brecon caves,
dark and light, hot and cold,
drawing me in to this good
and steadfast place.”
Soon, she finds blackbirds … and a place of salvation and healing:
“I pull out steeples, churches,
the sounds of singing, bells,”
There are new sensory pleasures where new scents are discernible:
“My fingers smell of damp /
and wood smoke, thin wisps
of cinnamon, strong home brews.”
In Touring Tenby with the Man I Will One Day Marry, the reader is delighted to meet ‘him’ so soon in Section 2 of the collection. But knowing ‘her’ propensity for being drawn to the dangerous, the reader might be alarmed to read “once, / as a teen, you bashed up a car / and ran, rum heavy, from the police.” Is this future husband going to prove as potentially dangerous as her brother? But “children pocketing / fat slabs of Caldey chocolate, fleeing / from monks” … is reassuringly innocent in comparison, and soon she and he “move closer until our legs touch / from hip bone to knee.”
In Proficiency we witness the couple’s growing intimacy, trust, knowledge of each other … and knowledge of self:
“All we know, in fact, is that our bodies
eager as geese after corn,
inelegant as windsocks, soft as chinchilla fur.
All we really know is we are gleeful ,,,”
… “just desire
fizzing up like Mentos in Coke.
All we know is our bodies are just bodies,
a tangle of sponge and limbs. All we know is
how they can cry and cry.”
Most Days is another consummately tender poem, looking back at the bad times and forwards to a contented present and future. In it we learn of:
“… the perfect cigarette burn
he seared into my calf, just out
of sock’s reach, the tiny craters
on my face.”
This cigarette burn might previously have escaped notice, and we must assume that there were other instances of abuse we don’t know about.
In the poem Husband, When You Go, the protagonist’s fear and anxiety bubble up again. She thinks of losing him to “some incurable disease / or high-speed traffic accident,” Despite this, she concludes “I will wait, let the poems come / back to me, back home”. She has the certainty that poetry, at least, will survive. But dread continues. In Hold she dreams of a plane crash two days after their engagement. It is a vivid nightmare, and a graphic poem. But she has a consoler now … someone, and something, precious she does not want to lose.
In Sex After Marriage, the couple are likened to aquatic creatures (that recurring motif of the collection):
“Together we are Coho Salmon cresting,
silvers slipping upstream. We are natural
Here, in freshwater, our brains have no work to do.
Here we give over to our bodies.”
Reiteration is another important poem in this collection. The girl might have been taken out of Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania cannot be taken out of the girl. She is tugged back by memory and family ties, and especially to the ‘complicit captivity’ of addiction, albeit not her own. Just as PTSD sufferers may imagine scenes from their past superimposed on current images they see, so she recognizes her brother in every subsequent falling addict:
“A couple falls
in a familiar alleyway,
limbs collapse, grit sticks
to the whites of their legs.”
“I recognize her …
… her thick film of need. /
She is you, my brother, you.
They are all you.”
Relation is another poignant poem in which the protagonist admits “I am addictions’ daughter sister cousin niece … terrorist victim bomb builder bystander …. firefighter smoke water steam … next of kin.” The poem tells of the nightmarish and continuing sense responsibility, the memories and the guilt, that people in this position are rarely free of … even with oceans of space and time between. The PTSD of recurring memories, blame and guilt get in the way of living in the freedom of a new life, in a new country.
Despite all past and current pain, this collection remains supremely a love story, encompassing the new love – the lover and husband, but retaining the memory of intense bonds between siblings, however flawed and tested.
Knowing You is another tender poem, and another favourite of this reviewer:
“tell me something dark and fetid about Welsh history,
you still say things I never thought you’d say,
still unfurl yourself slowly, a wet fern
in the forest, so I can breathe deep
and keep going.”
How to Love a Gardener marks a significant development in the ‘Transatlantic transition’ through the protagonist’s observation of the specifically British flora and fauna mentioned in the poem: Horse chestnuts, red squirrel pheasants, hedgehogs and newts. We are drawn, with the poet, to the acceptance that:
“Love like every green thing ever planted
will live long and never burn.”
This collection may have begun with dysfunction and tragedy but it moves … not only to a new continent, and specifically to Wales, but also moves from trauma towards healing through the power of love, experienced through patience, empathy and understanding – of oneself as well others – as continuing and residual fears and anxieties are worked through and resolved. In witnessing the devastation and courageous rebuilding, the reader – and reviewer – of How to Carry Fire are also moved … and privileged to have witnessed a powerful work of art taking shape, as a phoenix arising from the ashes.