Not fire. Not fire cascading in blue jewels
from the stovetop gas jets, not tentacling
the tile, not fire creaking up the stairs, trying on the clothes
in your closet. Not fire twining like ivy
up your mother’s bones. Saying not fire,
though, is the same as saying fire,.…
When I first read this poem, I had no idea what was going on, but that line stayed with me: “Saying not fire,/though, is the same as saying fire.” Not just because it’s literally (sort of) true, but because of the whole flammable/inflammable thing; it’s a nice capture of nuance, linking fire and confusion.
I was lucky enough to find a video of Beal reading this poem, and he explained: “It’s sort of addressed to my daughter although I’ll never read it to her.” At bedtime, she’s become afraid a fire will burn the house, so he started giving her three things to think about, instead of fire, every night. It’s a good thing he’ll never read this poem to her, at least not while she’s a young child (though I’m not a young child and it made me a little nervous).
He captures well the imagination of fear, all the horrible things that could happen, then moves on into the whimsy of other things to think about instead of the feared fire. Even then, though, there are references to fire, because w never completely forget our fears; even the alliteration imitates the sounds of a blaze: the popping and crackling of “plots of puppet shows for pandas” and the hissing of ” sunk inside a circle of stones,/never seen a spark catch a curtain”. We return at the very end to look at the aftereffects – charcoal – from a distance; someone else’s smoking ruins.
We like to think children don’t think in such vivid, detailed terms about their fears. Maybe our fears, enhanced with our greater experience of what is possible, inflame their fears.