Touchpapers: The Poetics of the House Fire
There are some stories we are compelled to retell as touchstones – or touchpapers – of experience: events that have set alight a change of view or circumstance. Some occurrences break so extraordinarily with our standard perceptions that this in itself offers impetus to frame them in language. These are what the American poet Louise Glück calls ‘charged stories or referents, the sorts of stories we tell those [attractive strangers] we wish to befriend, so that they will see what has formed us.’
One such shock to my own assumptions as a twenty-something happened one Friday night, during a freezing English March. It was a night of standing out on the sleety pavement, dressed in a thin cotton nightdress shoved hastily into jeans: feeling a brief scrape from the cold, leathery wings of homelessness, as a fire took hold of the three-storey house my husband and I shared with several others.
Deviating from their routine beat, police had driven down our road, and seen a car they thought was kerb crawling. The occupant, who turned out to be a minicab driver, was calling the fire brigade from his cell phone; he’d seen black rolls of smoke funnelling from one of the second storey rooms.
The sound of police battering down our front door began the most frightening and surreal night I’ve ever experienced. It, indeed, is one of those accounts I have told and retold to friends and ‘attractive strangers’. As it is also one of those events that fractured familiar patterns, and even cherished beliefs, the impulse to write about it has been strong. Yet the power of the impulse has faded even as the lines were written – picture a match, self-consuming, becoming an ashen, ineffectual skeleton. I’ve never been able to make the events undergo the alterations they must if they were to achieve the state of poetry. As a result, when I’ve come across poems about house fires, I’ve leaned in as close as possible, listening for knowledge of what went on in others’ burning rooms – and perhaps, by extension, for what went on in my own.
The house fire is often a metaphor for material loss, but eventual emotional gain. (An exception is that haunting, taunting childhood rhyme, ‘Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are gone.’ Or, in one version, ‘burned’.) In their various treatments of a house fire, three contemporary women poets – Louise Glück, Margaret Atwood, and Cilla McQueen – all, at some level, seek to work out such a balance of ruin and relief. I bring these writers together here not as a scholar tracing literary history, seeking origins or influence – the creative spark passed between poets in a literary Olympiad – but as a reader seeking someone else’s words to articulate a profoundly rocking experience. And as a way to try to figure out why that London house fire has always failed, so far, to ignite its own poetry.
If poetry is illumination and transformation, the house fire and the poem seem immediately akin. What is fire, if not light and heat and the process of change? This kinship does appear very early in the world’s spiritual and literary history: one ancient source is the ‘Parable of the Burning House’, which appears in TheLotus Sutra, an instructional text based on the teachings of Buddha, who lived roughly 2,500 years ago. The setting for this parable is a rich man’s home which is engulfed by flames, while the wealthy father’s tiny sons play inside, unaware that the house is burning. Even when the father warns them, they are unable to understand what danger they’re in. The father must invent ‘expedient means’ to rescue them; he tells them that wonderful toys – goat, deer and ox carts – are beyond the gates. Each son, ‘emboldened in his heart’, rushes outside to safety. The Buddha goes on to say that
Living itself is the inferno: all mortals are trapped in the conflagration of themselves, and ignorant of how they burn. Our attachments to worldly things are the cause of all our suffering.
On a literal level, certainly, a house fire threatens to obliterate worldly goods. These goods can be the symbolic repositories of our very identities, the vessels of our beliefs and values. Additionally, gifts or photos become aides-mémoires, calling up whenever we hold or look at them the memory of this person, of that time ... For a person who writes, ‘worldly goods’ can also include manuscripts, and, now, computers. For a writer, that pale-grey plastic box on the desk can be a container of identities, values, memories; a storehouse for years of work; a surrogate home for lives and livelihoods.
As I watched firemen in reflective jackets press towards our building, like creatures drawn to brilliant light who then struggle back from the heat, the realisation slowly dawned. Under a ceiling that was fast drinking in gulps of fire sat my notes, my books, the hard evidence of two years spent writing a PhD thesis. Yet the thought was very slow to come, arriving long after all the tenants were safely on the street (and warmly dressed in the ski-gear my husband had grabbed as he left the building). And now I wonder. Was this delayed reaction just another form of shock, or was an unconscious gamble taking place? Writing a thesis is rarely enjoyable, no matter how strong the compulsion is. In the proximity of the flames to my laptop was there a perverse promise of release? This is the paradoxical lure of the house fire: its power both to destroy and to liberate. It is a fantasy especially potent in a culture like ours, with its fervent belief in ownership, its faith that things help to anchor us. Fire might burn away that weight of possession and leave us lighter than air.
Centuries, continents, and a cultural divide separate the Buddhist parable from Louise Glück’s ‘Night Song’, first collected in 1985. In her essay ‘The Dreamer and the Watcher’, Glück cites the poem as an example of the turn her work took after a devastating house fire. My own diary entries shortly after the London incident gnaw over one anxiety: that poetry seems to have stopped. The entries keep connecting this to the blaze, but can’t express why the two should be linked. In the wake of her loss Glück discovered the opposite. After the initial silence of crisis, she attained such fluency that she feared she was about to die: the productivity felt unnatural, and, therefore, like a portent. The creative fever – another traditional and fiery metaphor, aligning art and illness, or the abnormal – felt fatalistic. Yet the house fire, which she calls ‘a reprimand to the collector’, also gave her a vivid sense of escape: ‘I felt lucky to wake up, lucky to make the beds, lucky to grind the coffee.’ This revaluation of the ordinary and the here-and-now leads her to write about the fire as the kiln in which she reforged her artistic aims. ‘I wanted to locate poems in a now that would never recur, in a present […] utterly different from my previous use of that tense […] I wanted, as well, poems not so much developed as undulant, more fire than marble.’ The poem, that is, should achieve the state of the element that enkindled her determination.
In ‘Night Song’, the speaker addresses a lover asleep on an unidentified shore, beginning, ‘Look up into the light of the lantern.’ This context suggests the myth of Eros and Psyche – the mortal woman enacting the forbidden, gazing at the anonymous god who has regularly visited her bed, and her body, in darkness. In the classical era, of course, that lantern would have held a naked flame: Glück says, implicitly, ‘Look into the origins of my own revelation’. The one other mention of fire in the poem is a simile for sexual passion:
Here, we hear iambic and trochaic patterns: yet these are often quenched in the poem. Each time it seems that the lines have warmed into a steady metre, Glück’s punctuation, semantic emphasis or line breaks stall it, snuff it out. This is appropriately ugly; the half lines blurt and bluntly interrupt – thus redefining the title. The poem is no lullaby, nor even a serenade: it is a reveille, a call to consciousness, a song to puncture the night. The speaker wants to awaken the lover, to share more than sexual knowledge:
The speaker, Glück tells us in her essay, is on a kind of vigil or fire-watch. She wants to witness every second of life and growth, every second of the energy travelling between herself and her lover. The poem is an admonishment to behold the present: on the sleeping lover’s face is ‘a look of mild expectancy’ or passive waiting; its opposite is ardent action, immediacy. Love lends fearlessness. Even the alterations, dislocations or agonies of time are welcomed. (It’s very much a young lover’s demand, or at least a demand from a young phase of love. The poem sequence as a whole acknowledges this, as it follows the relationship to a point of separateness, where the speaker says ‘in each of us began / a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this / of the absence of regret. / We were artists again, my husband.’)
The burden of ‘Night Song’ is discordant with that of the ‘Parable of the Burning House’, that ancient verse which tells us that all our bonds to the earthly present – even to loved ones – are deluded: cause of all our agonies. I’m afraid I’m weak. As a reader seeking solace, I resist the impossible ideals of the Buddhist text: Glück’s poem feels truer to lived experience. Imminent danger renders the present infinitely precious. Written in the light of such danger, ‘Night Song’ tells us to relish our present: not to dream, wishing for a fictitious future. TheLotus Sutra, however, would say that Glück (and I) are still trapped within our blazing houses: still clinging to illusion.
Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Morning in the Burned House’ was first collected in her book of the same title in 1995. Atwood has written elsewhere on a related motif. Her book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), in a chapter called ‘Québec: Burning Mansions’, unpacks the image of the burning ancestral home, recurrent in French-Canadian literature, as a symbol of freedom from stifling, corrupt tradition. Atwood’s own poem, however, is not about the purgative fires that cleanse us of the disease and sins of history. Reaching no deeper into history than the nuclear family, it is an eerily elegiac meditation on the separations and estrangement that time works between mother, father, brother, sister.
The poem begins with a prosaic statement of action and place in the sequel to some domestic conflagration: a statement which it instantly retracts. It then carefully compiles an inventory, tracing a past physical and material context with simple clarity. And then, with the kind of God-like ease an author can wield within a text, Atwood resurrects, destroys and resurrects this context within adjacent clauses. It is as if fate is a coin she keeps tossing. The poem’s argument flickers between yes and no, light and dark, so that, despite its visual acuity, we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing. The work is an almost hallucinatory experience:
The startled repetitions and the strange intensity in those overturned tenses potently re-enact the way the mind revisits trauma. Despite the alertness of Glück’s speaker, somehow her poem seems cooler next to Atwood’s; it takes me back to the edgy rhythms of life in a decayed, fire-blown building, after the immediate crisis had passed, and the task was to contemplate what changes the experience had wreaked. Atwood’s poem, by contrast, is almost pyromaniac: it sets off all the chromatics, all the visual jolts, from the night of the fire itself. The fox-orange flames. Tear stained faces, dark and pale. The enormous portable floodlights the fire crew used to illuminate the charred, dripping interior. Throats of fallen whisky bottles, cocked over the open pit between first and ground floors. Atwood’s simple use of colour calls to mind, in particular, the one belonging of ours that was damaged by the fire. It was a wedding-gift from a friend: a print of a work by Edgar Degas, A Maid Combing a Woman’s Hair. It is painted almost entirely in umbers and ambers, as if Degas were trying to show – without depicting the hearth itself – the play of firelight over the women’s faces, hair and clothes. The print is bubbled and stained: not singed, but water-damaged. Torrents from the fire hoses leaked in behind the glass of the frame.
Atwood’s poem, like the others, is a meditation upon the force that stains, singes, damages us: reduces us to ash and matter. Although it too is separated by centuries from the Lotus Sutra, it shares Zen-like qualities, seeking to ‘boggle the mind and jar it loose from conventional concepts of time and space.’ Yet where the Buddhist devotional text uses immense catalogues of myriad beings, and outlines vast stretches of time which ordinary consciousness barely grasps, Atwood tinkers with tinier descriptive cogs. She blurs tenses, uses oxymoron or paradox. The result intersects with Buddhist notions that ‘anywhere is the same as everywhere, and now, then, never and forever are all one.’ It is a concept that the Western reader of modernist poetry will instantly associate with the Christianity of TS Eliot, whose poem ‘Burnt Norton’ begins with great, intoning, priestly repetitions and abstractions:
Atwood’s metaphysics are similar – yet the music of her poem is Independent Label to Eliot’s Deutsche Grammophon. Sibilance, consonance, assonance, and the careful rhyme of metrically parallel, polysyllabic words fuse sound and poetic vision with an astonishingly light hand and enviable insouciance:
That nexus of sounds says listen closely to the thematic conclusion; it also helps to bind together apparently disparate adjectives. This technique reiterates that there is more harmony between these concepts than might first appear. What glows and is luminous with youth is in the process of being consigned and razed. What is burning is already burnt – although the very act of making the poem is evidence that memory reseeds the ash.
In Atwood’s poem, fire is time. To move from Glück and Atwood to Cilla McQueen is to move from myth and concentrated metaphor to a work more akin to realism. McQueen’s ‘The Autoclave’, published in Markings in 2000, is of all the poems discussed here the most direct document of the struggle to accept the material losses (including author’s notebooks and drafts) incurred in a major house fire. Aptly, McQueen’s metaphor for creativity in this poem is antithetical to flame or fever: writing is taking ‘scoops from the inner stream’.
The poem’s speaker recollects – one might even say rebuilds – all of the architectural and emotional spaces of her home, The Flounder Inn at Otakou. For me this stimulates a similar imaginative reconnaissance of the rooms and corridors of ‘Homelands’, our old building at 26 Lordship Park, Stoke Newington. McQueen evocatively remaps the floor plan, and accompanying thought-routines at Otakou. Her spaces return me to the partly roofless and wall-less living room of Flat One. With that return come the sounds of furniture shifting, French conversation, and the mention of a name, all funnelled down through the gaps from the ruined flat above: knocking and echoing like rocks dropped into a cavernous underground stream. Hearing these sounds again reinforces to me that the real shocks of that night were nothing to do with material loss, but rather with what the fire uncovered of people’s lives.
Perhaps those watery metaphors above, too, are brought on by McQueen’s poem. ‘The Autoclave’ begins with descriptions of a coastal home, its flora and fauna, the sound of rain. If there is any overtone of threat at all, it might be that the house – the draughty Inn – could flood and float out as jetsam on a high tide. The steady rhythms, the stanzas which range from six to ten lines (deviating only as much as wavelets reaching a little nearer, retreating a little farther, along a shoreline), and the continuous present verbs, all lull us into comforting notions of the cyclical, the endlessly renewing. Then – in a mimesis of suspense – a hyphen between stanzas punctures this pattern, tells us to hold our breath, before a deliberately top-heavy two-line stanza dumps us on the shore with its blunt, uncomfortable truth:
And then the Flounder Inn burns to the ground,
In this poem, ‘Memory settles / like ash’: it signals the backwards glance, a barrier to acceptance. McQueen’s account of the ‘acute recall’ which means that she can ‘see and smell and feel / my vanished house’ makes ‘The Autoclave’ seem a sister to Atwood’s poem. Yet unlike Atwood, who intentionally retracts tenses to give the reader an uncanny, creeping sense of past and present realities melting into, and ghosting from, one another, McQueen makes it clear that memory is not current reality. She explains, and so undercuts, the illusion, because her purpose is to understand and release herself from the experience: to cremate it, in fact, not to recreate it.
Paradoxically, the crucial manoeuvre for McQueen in this process of acceptance that ‘the past is past’ is to find a parallel between the house fire and ancestral experience: to achieve a deeper sense of history. McQueen moves into crisp yet detailed, factual narrative, retracing genealogy and a story of origins which incorporates one of the oldest narrative traditions for framing migration: the ‘new beginning’ in ‘fresh pastures’. (And why innovate, when preserving links between the self and historical lineage is the rhetorical aim? We read too narrowly, too superficially, if we reserve critical praise for literary innovation alone.) McQueen’s house fire becomes an autoclave – the agent of separation and purification. Just as her immigrant ancestors had to undergo temporary segregation from the wider community, to enter quarantine, so too the contemporary poet’s self has had to undergo separation from some of its false, or ‘unhealthy’, attachments: to possessions and even the notion that certain hoarded manuscripts and journals could be the source of future work.
So the house fire becomes a threshold, allows passage into another world: entry into a new home, a new relationship, and new bonds with this partner’s whanau. The final stanza of McQueen’s long, meditative work frames memory as both self-absorption and itself an essential autoclave. Recollection is a process of isolation within, and eventual purification from, loss: necessary before the community can be rejoined and the self can look outwards again, becoming receptive as well as reflective.
What all the works here share – Eastern gathas, American essay, American, Canadian and New Zealand poems – is the transmutation of a specific (even if fabulous) event, into an archetypal contemplation of the nature of time. Rereading them all does open up answers to my enquiry about why I’ve been unable to address the London house fire in poetry – or more specifically, in the lyric poem.
Initially, sitting in the repaired living room of ‘Homelands’ – screwed up notebook pages littered around me like useless paper-starter for a campfire when there was neither coal nor wood – I thought that I might have hit a failure of descriptive language. The house fire wasn’t ‘like’ anything I had ever experienced; therefore, the metaphors and similes I tried were inadequate, false. Yet having eavesdropped on the structures built by other writers, I now think the problem lay elsewhere, in my choice of the lyric form itself. The lyric poem hones in on the essential, the prototypical. It finds the still points in the turning world. Usually, that is, it doesn’t tell a story.
In the already bizarre, twilight zone usually reserved for deep sleep, the fire brought together – or into collision – a chaos of people and attitudes. The house fire affected ten people, of five nationalities and diverse historical and political backgrounds, in the building. And it affected others in neighbouring houses, whose homes were also endangered. To write authentically about that night would require a dense map of an even denser social matrix. I would need to write about the experience of immigrants and expatriates in London, social masks, alcoholism, a severe self-neglect, apathy and squalor, suicidal and even murderous impulses. I’d have to write about cross-cultural love affairs, homosexuality, prejudice, fundamentalist religion, sexism, language barriers, prostitution, and a degree of mental illness of which, at that time, I had virtually no practical understanding. And I would need to write about the destruction of my own then-still-young assumptions. One of which was, if you smile kindly, and ask someone how they are, and offer friendship, and they smile back, saying they are fine – then either all is fine, or you have at least helped to make things a little finer than they were. In other words, I had to learn that decent human kindness cannot always heal.
On the night of the house fire, watching giant tentacles of flame probe through shared ceilings and floors, I’d felt shrunk and rattled, reduced to dice in the hands of the cold. On subsequent days, the flat was freezing: the fire had sucked all heat from the surrounding space, yet my cheeks were constantly hot: coals of memory and shock.
Fire hoses had turned the soot into an ankle-deep, wet, black sludge in the main hallway. Three of the flats were badly damaged, and the whole building was clogged with the sickly, sweetish stink of carbonised wood, rice, plaster, coffee, wallpaper, leather, wire, fruit, carpet, vinyl, foolscap, plastic, milk, wool, linoleum, cotton, bread, Formica, paint, nylon, cardboard …. Once so innocuous in its solidity, the entire physical world now seemed like tinder. Every substance concealed its true volatility. For several nights – irrationally – I slept in my clothes, expecting to be woken again by the clatter of crisis. Time and again I replayed in my mind’s eye the desperate image of the tenant who had started the house fire and failed to call the emergency services. Face begrimed and tear-streaked, eye-whites red with smoke, hands held out as blackened claws, this person had surfaced, hunched, from the building, with a police officer at each arm, and dressed – surreally it seemed at the time – all in green, like wood that wouldn’t take.
Thinking about this emergence and what linked us all to it, and thinking too about the structures and salvations of poetry, I realise the fire was in many senses a single loop in a complex net. For the written word to act effectively as spill or touchpaper for a fuller illumination, it would have to convey those complexities. I suspect that if I am ever capable of writing about that house fire in a wider sense than I’ve managed here, it would be in some narrative – not lyric – form. For, as the scorchingly articulate Glück has said in another article: ‘only narrative can adequately represent in art the onset of harm.’
1. Glück,‘The Fear of Happiness’ (Hopwood Lecture), PN Review 118, Nov-Dec 1997, p. 56.
2. Watson (trans), The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia UP, 1993, p. 69.
3. Glück, The Triumph of Achilles, 1985. This and all subsequent quotations from the poem come from Glück, The First Five Books of Poems, Manchester: Carcanet, 1997.
4. Glück, ‘The Dreamer and the Watcher’, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994, pp 99-100.
5. This and all subsequent quotations from the poem come from Atwood, Morning in the Burned House. London: Virago, 1995.
6. Watson, translator’s introduction to The Lotus Sutra, p. xv.
7. This, and all subsequent quotations from the poem, come from McQueen, Markings. Dunedin: U of Otago P, 2000.
8. Glück, ‘Story Tellers’, PN Review 117, Sept-Oct 1997, p.13
Atwood, Margaret. Morning in the Burned House. London: Virago, 1995.
-----. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Glück, Louise. Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. New Jersey: Ecco, 1994.
-----. The First Five Books of Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997.
-----. ‘Story Tellers’. PN Review 117, Sept-Oct 1997.
-----. ‘The Fear of Happiness’ (Hopwood Lecture), PN Review 118, Nov-Dec 1997.
Eliot, TS. Four Quartets. London: Faber, 1944. Rpt 1991.
McQueen, Cilla. Markings. Dunedin: U of Otago P, 2000.
Watson, Burton (trans). The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
My thanks to Andrew Johnston and Christine Lorre for past introductions to certain poems and poets.