I’m writing this on the day when catastrophic fire conditions are expected and a maximum of 43 degrees in Sydney. I also have a fever, so it seems heat is absolutely inescapable today as it ravages over the landscape and pushes well above the normal level on my oral thermometer. The fires in Tasmania and Victoria are still burning as well. I feel a strong sense of nervousness about the day. At the moment there’s a small amount of cloud cover and the wind is just starting up. I can hear some insects outside doing their high-pitched, electronic chirr. I wonder what will have eventuated by today’s end? Will it be as black as they have predicted, or will people be spared the infernos? As fire is such an integral feature of the Australian landscape, I have been trying to recall poems which have been written on the subject. The poem that springs immediately to mind is Les Murray’s Grassfire Stanzas, not strictly about a bush fire, rather it depicts a winter burning off. My favourite stanza is the second last one:
It’s the sun that is touched, and dies in expansion, mincing,
making the round dance, foretelling its future, driving
the frantic lives outwards. The sun that answers the bark tip
is discharged in many little songs, to forestall a symphony.
Let’s hope there will be no symphony of flames today. Then there’s Judith Wright’s, “Night After Bushfire”, with this most evocative opening: There is no more silence on the plains of the moon/ and time is no more alien there, than here. The recent photographs on the news from fire-ravaged Dunalley portray these sentiments exactly. Wright’s poem, “The Bushfire”, is also powerful for the way it describes how a fire destroys a thousand year-old palm. In this poem she gives the fire a speaking voice:
“I am that which is not able to be whole,”
says the fire; “and therefore I devour
seeking the absolute I do not find.
This strength that falls to ash within the palm
grew through a million days is eaten in an hour,
and in its death I die.”
Philip Hodgins’s “Melbourne Heatwave” has his characteristic imagistic flare as he describes a hot day in Melbourne ringed by fires. He brings in a rather apocalyptic note:
I try to imagine what the cities of the future
smell like when they burn: all those gadgets
flaring and melting into the most dreadful fumes.
Those last lines are reminiscent of Robert Gray’s masterpiece “Flames and Dangling Wire” in which men rake over a burning rubbish dump: And standing where I see the mirage of the city/ I realise I am in the future. It will be made of things that worked// A labourer hoists an unidentifiable mulch/ on his fork, throws it in the flame: something flaps/ like a rag held up in ‘The Raft of the Medusa’. Gray’s poem “Black Landscape” memorably describes the aftermath of a bushfire:
Smell of wet ashes, and trickling water. We found
headless trees breaking there
into fine leaf again: their boles were stockinged with them
as with flame. A tremulous mohair.
Andrew Sant’s “Fires” from his book, The Caught Sky, depicts two points of view and perspective, The Observer and The Volunteer. The former watches a fire from a distance through binoculars, pondering it all/ with the detachment/ of someone accumulating detail/ for posterity -// the hurrying sheep confused as poked maggots. The latter is at the coal face, making fire-breaks, yet still slightly removed, as if the scene is not fully real, not able to be quite comprehended, it alludes to how danger can sometimes take us outside our bodies: I felt exposed/ as in a movie, watching/ myself at a safe distance,/ trapped by curiosity.
Many poems describe the sounds of fire, but there’s a terrific poem by Russell Erwin coming out in March in the special Canberra edition of Meanjin which compellingly describes the eerie stillness and silence of a fire:
Driving beneath into that apricot-soft light
was like being inside an evangelist’s blimp:
a dome of chapel stillness, except for little flames
at the hem like small faces sneaking entry under.
For a moment there was a benign peace
as is said of those hazy, uncertain states:
the womb, anaesthesia, drowning.
Mark Tredinnick’s poem “Fire Diary”, while not literally about a fire, beautifully uses fire metaphors to speak about psychological or emotional charring. Here’s the opening line: Fire has stormed the mountains of his sleep and he wakes in ruins. He goes on to say, later in the poem,
Fire is the madness/ in us all.
I am sure there are other wonderful poems about fires. I’m sure quite a few would have been written about the Black Saturday fires. I recall one by Geoff Page, but I don’t at the moment have a copy of it. Let’s hope today will not be a day after which fire poems will be written.