Tennessee is Burning
Two kids wanted to set the South on fire. That’s all we know for now. Its flames so bright blind men could see, the wildfire ravaged the mountainside, felling telephone wires and trees fuzzy with rain and copper leaves. Prior to late November, a drought languished for three months. One match kicked, and now the South is on fire. I am nowhere near the mountains, but I can smell the air lit thick with particulate and charred debris. The light today burns weak, the sky looks smeared, and fire has so many meanings—noun, verb—the entire island of Manhattan could fit inside the wreckage of Tennessee— and no one cares that the South is now on fire because if we shout fire! we could mean liar, liar. We could mean to ring all the bells at once, a prophecy said of volcanoes, a vivid light, a splendor. There is green fire and there is red fire, and through the South course rivers of fire, a false or misleading beacon no one could have foreseen except that we should have. The South has always been on fire. It just keeps reeling me back in—it’s a luminous body, a star.
Why I Couldn’t Write
Because I took everything out of my drawers and piled it on the floor. Because it was rush hour at twilight in Central Time. Because poems became like marbles— there was no way inside and I had splintered myself already. Who cared if words fizzled and rhymed? Who cared if the lines broke like powder from a stale donut in my mouth and I had to hold out my hand to catch them? Because I wore a lead apron. Because they saw me dancing alone in a lilac dress and thought, how sad. Because I would stare at the ceiling and there was nothing. Because I would stare at the television and there was nothing. Because I would stare at the walls and there was nothing except telephone wires curled into cobwebs. Because I couldn’t get a job. Because I drove through Missouri I drove through Illinois I drove through Indiana I drove through Ohio I drove through Kentucky I drove through Tennessee and exit ramps didn’t matter. Because I wanted to be a block. I wanted to be a paperback, slid into a bookshelf, safe and contained. I came across ski boats of many colors. They stood upright in a half-circle like ancient ruins. Whatever. The image no longer stuck in my mind like a penny and nothing rendered anymore. Darkness poured over everything as though the sky were a tipped jar of molasses. There was no thinking my way out of an X-ray. I added the chemicals back into my brain one by one, row by row— Gum Drops lined the roof of a house made of crackers and candy. My brain of swirls and loops. My brain of sacred decay. Because the veins brightened in my eyes. Because the people who loved me cried and I couldn’t—not in years— I don’t know why. (That’s a lie.) Because I’m not supposed to talk about what happened, and if I were doing yoga, then what was the problem, anyway? Yoga gave me heat rash. Yoga gave me ringworm, pink spirals on my thigh. I didn’t talk to anyone although I went there to make friends. I learned that I was stronger, (quieter) than any man. Because I went through every object in my house. I drove old towels to an animal shelter, then I put everything back in my drawers. It was cleaner, less cluttered, only filled with what I needed but not at all the same.
Final Days, 2016
—for M.A.H. I tell my sister I learned that space is like a donut in that it wraps around itself and never ends but the kicker is that it never began, or rather, begins because time is like that, too— a donut or bagel or danish, and so is God. No, no! she shouts and pushes back from her chair. She muffles her ears. I can’t take it! Infinity freaks me out. I remember when I, too, was that afraid, ever since I saw Cookie Monster devour the moon. Now, I find comfort in what I cannot explain. Or perhaps comfort is not the word I’m looking for. These days, I hold infinity at bay like sugar caramelized in my teeth, the seeds and stones muscled in my shoulder blades, my gray-eyed children of whom I dream—smaller than the punctuation in this poem and cradled in the place where our bones have gone unnamed. The Greeks stared and shook their heads because the pelvis was unlike anything they’d ever seen, formed of three bones that fuse together once we’ve grown. For women, it happens when we bleed. Mine took forever. The doctor squinted at my hipbones, perky and glowing in their X-rays like slabs of cod encased in ice on display. Underdeveloped was the word he penned for me at fourteen, my body all right degree angles in a one-piece bathing suit, my spine nonlinear, my hamstrings tight as cello strings. I never used to understand why my mother would rub her temples before dinner and insist that we pray. But the heavens aren’t meant to console. On the darkest night of 2016, the air is too dry to light the solstice lamps we planned to set sail into the sky ablaze with planets that appear to us as pinpricks of light the size of a freckle or a word— if only we could see them. Tonight, I scan the darkness as I never have before because I have lost someone, and she isn’t coming back. I wish I had taken Calculus. I wish I could interpret the numbers and graphs, the geometry of a spine that bends until it halts— a medical miracle, unforeseen—the difference between actual infinity and potential. I wonder if this is where we go when we die—the innominate place that the Greeks knew but couldn’t say—where we begin again in another world, another plane. The ancients had so many names. I wish I could ask them how long it will take her to catch up to where we are now, and what if, when she finally arrives, we look away? The last word my friend wrote me was deserve. How I’d love to share a donut with her in a café. Tonight, I imagine infinity curled before me as my fireplace that I am too scared to use because I don’t know my own impulses, my own release of power. Or, perhaps I’m scared because I do. What if I burn it all down? What if I cannot be contained? My hearth is a black hole I didn’t know I could attain. Be with me, Monica. I cannot do this alone. The night is cold, and I want to light a fire.
Anne Barngrover is the author of two books of poetry, Brazen Creature (forthcoming 2018, University of Akron Press) and Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013). She is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and English at Saint Leo University and lives in Tampa, Florida.