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
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.