LOCUSPOINT: Madison, May 31, 2008

Of the Wisconsin capital, Brent Goodman wrote, “Madison’s poetry scene cannot be contained. With 5 or more readings a week scheduled at various bookstores, to a strong community of resident post-MFA day-job poets, to the amazing national talent the university’s creative writing fellowships attract every year alongside the local award-winning slam team, this “Berkeley of the Midwest” remains an irresistibly-fun town in which to write, collaborate, and grow roots.”

In the ensuring years, Madison has (unfortunately) become a symbol of America’s troubled relationship between labor and leaders, an odd situation for a town loving called “an island of liberalism surrounded by reality.”

I grew up 45 minutes away from Madison, but know surprisingly little of it first-hand. I lived along an invisible border that separates Wisconsin into two cultural camps: the Madison side and the Milwaukee side.

For this retrospective, Brent selected a poem by Nick Lantz called “History of Fire.” Since appearing in LOCUSPOINT, Nick has gone on to publish his first and second books.

History of Fire

All things, oh priests, are on fire.
The earthquake on your birthday—

car alarms calling each other
like love-sick dogs, the forgotten

air-raid siren on the YMCA yowling
its one, sore note. The decks

of the freeway snap together,
the burning cars trapped. You watch

the rescue workers disappear
into the smoking gaps. Sometimes

they return with a survivor;
sometimes they do not. Begin

with the molecule, its carbons
shoulder to shoulder in the cold

quantum space. Begin 400 million
years ago, the Devonian air blushed

with oxygen, the first lightning-sparked
peat bogs smoldering on the shore.

Begin with this: fuel, oxygen, and heat,
this triangle, this tent of sticks you build

in the dirt. Begin with the room
where they waited until fire wormed

down through the rafters, draped
like a robe across them, until foreign

words clogged their mouths. Parthians
and Elamites, Arabs and the Greeks,

all understood, but someone
in the crowd jeered: they are full of wine.

The tongue is burning, oh priests,
its words unhinge their atoms.

From the hotel roof, in Istanbul,
you see it: a tire dump burning

on the other side of the Bosporus,
its base brighter than any city lights.

A waiter brings plates of olives
for your family. You hold your plate,

a cool O against your palm.
The moon is rust. The moon is gone.

Kallinikos the alchemist invented
liquid fire, a fluid that ignited

whenever it touched water,
and the Byzantines used it

to burn down the Muslim fleet
surrounding Constantinople.

The recipe for this fire is lost—
petroleum or calcium phosphide cooked

from lime, charcoal, and bones?
You have walked the covered

bazaar, its air rough with tea;
at the newly arrived American

burger chain, you ate your fill.
You stood inside the Blue Mosque,

your mother and aunt covering
their nude arms with burlap shawls

taken from a heap by the door,
while high on a pole, a loudspeaker

warbled out the call to prayer. The eye,
oh priests, is on fire. Everything

it sees is only flame or fuel.
All day, the Santa Ana winds

goad the fire. Neighbors stand
in the cul-de-sac and stare

at the orange ribbon draped
across the hills. You watch

whole groves of eucalyptus
sprout red wings, the trunks

screaming as they split in half.
The fire department hands out

sooty pamphlets that warn fires
persist in root systems for days,

and for a week you watch
the backyard maple, waiting

for it to give birth to a hot, angry child.
Fire burns a forest, a home,

a river. Cresting over the hills
at night you see the refinery,

caked in fluorescent light,
its stacks fingering the sky

with purple flames. You know
how close you’ve come to disaster:

the trio of gulls that disappeared
into the jet engine, a plume

of smoke and blood pouring out
the other side, the guttural heave

of the cabin as the plane
banked hard. Safe on the tarmac,

you looked back and saw
the fuselage feathered with carbon.

Colorado, Arizona, Oregon—
the summer every forest burned,

your brother took a job watching
trees from a stand, a lifeguard

without water. The fires at night,
he said, started like planets,

orange sparks low on the horizon.
After your parents’ divorce,

in your father’s cramped efficiency,
you opened the oven and flames

filled the small kitchen, crisped
the flesh on your arm and cheek.

All the way to the hospital,
your father chanted an apology.

Agni’s parents were two sticks—
rubbed together, they gave birth

to him and then burned to death.
You grow to understand this.

Agni grows up; he has two faces
and seven tongues. You understand

this too. Though it terrifies you,
you even understand when India

builds the Agni Missile, capable
of striking targets deep in China.

You grow to understand credible
deterrence, every other euphemism

of violence and mistrust, all
the Patriots and Peacekeepers

in the world. Nothing lasts,
oh priests; it turns to smoke

as we speak. Some fires are only
slower than others: a trash fire

catches a vein of coal that spreads
its own dark roots under the town.

The gases buckle the streets,
fill up basements, kill small dogs.

Some people learn to live with it;
most do not. The fire burns

for forty years, until the town
is all but deserted, until only a few

caved-in buildings still lean against
their naked I-beams, until the highway,

like a river, changes its course
to avoid the town. Backpacking

with your father in Arizona
you stop for lunch halfway up

the mountain, where a sign
memorializes a boy scout troop

that froze to death on this spot.
You can’t imagine dying that way,

not here, where the dusty lizards
pant on the rocks. You imagined

a desert of scrub brush and cacti,
but when you reach the peak

you see whole forests burning.
Your father tells you that fire

isn’t a thing—like a book or a building
or a child—but rather a process

of things, the road a thing walks
to become another, new thing.

Begin with accident or intent, a spark
or a hand. Begin with priests

smoldering in their temples.
Begin with the gods punishing

or rewarding us. Begin with this:
You wake up on a train

inside a tunnel of smoke.
You remember those plane flights

through clouds, miles above
earth, without bearing or reference,

the re-circulated air thin as a dream
about leaving. You’ve passed

the lumber yards, their damp stacks
of logs raw under the sun, the grunting

machine that rearranges them
with its hydraulic claw. You know

that fuel is fuel. Changing the trees
to houses won’t save them.

You stand and walk the length
of the train like a drunk, your legs

unsure. It’s barely dawn
and the other passengers mumble

half-words in languages you almost
understand. For hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

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