Many Small Fires by Charlotte Pence

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When I read I tend to take notes. As I was reading Charlotte Pence’s first full-length poetry collection Many Small Fires I found that my notes kept coming back to how each individual poem in the collection responded to the title of the book. It became like a game – searching for the ways that fire is utilized.

To start a fire you work from a triangle of fuel, heat, and oxygen.  A fuel, as a noun, is a material used to produce heat or power, but fuel can also be a verb as it causes something to burn more intensely. A fuel can, therefore, start a fire, but it can also sustain or inflame it. How does Pence fuel her poetry collection?

The first poem in the collection is “Argument (1)” which is a conversation between the speaker and her father. The father wants to know why the speaker writes these poems which come, often, from looking back. He says, “Charlotte, that’s yesterday.” The collection will circle back to this question of why we write as it concludes with the poem “Argument (2)” which ties the poem’s speaker’s past to the “longer history” of the human race as epitomized by an archaeological dig Pence visited with her husband in Indonesia.

(At times I struggle with my pronouns while discussing this collection because I don’t want to say the speaker of every poem is Pence, but she is very open in her Author’s Note about her personal connections to her material.)

In “Argument (2)” Pence writes about the, “10,000-year-old dirt [that] …smells / like our dirt: ripe with ash and clay, sunning bone and lost rain.” The speaker/the poet wants her readers/her father to see these connections. I see this as the primary fuel behind the poems in this collection. Pence hints at this fuel in her Author’s Note where she addresses the lesser referred to definition of ecology, “the branch of biology that considers the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.”

Pence has the fuel (these subjects to consider, contrast, and combine) for this poetry collection, but what will ignite the fuel? Where is the heat? The obvious answer would be to think, again of a physical fire, but I want to dig a little deeper and think about the beginning. The sparks. The frictions. The actions that use the fuel.

For an example, I’d like to consider, again, the relationship between the speaker and her father the poem “My Father Speaks of Thieves.” This short poem of only 12 lines weighs the definition of a thief. The poem’s epigraph is Matthew 21:13 where Jesus says his house has been made a den of thieves, but the poem pushes against that quote; argues for, “A girl who sells rotten tomatoes / at the market for more money than the good ones,” because, “Need is not thievery.” Yet the next stanza will show a father asking his eight-year-old daughter for a loan, and the girl agrees. Says, “with interest,” but at the same time feels the accusing eyes of her, “stuffed / animals lined up like prisoners before a firing squad.” So who is in the wrong here? Who is the father? The holy father? The speaker’s father? The poet’s father? Who is the thief? The tensions in the poem are contained within these questions, and probably more that I didn’t even consider.

The fuel is there. The friction has been raised. We just need the oxygen.

Charlotte PenceWe think of oxygen as air, but oxygen is also the most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Oxygen is also part of water which is another life giver. Water also puts a fire out. Oxygen, in the case of building a fire, allows the fuel and the heat to come together. Oxygen allows a fire to breathe. I’d like to be able to talk more technically about words like oxidation and such here, but while I love science, I’m not an expert so I’m working on a more basic understanding of reactions. What I am thinking of is how oxygen, to me in the case of fire, must take from the heat and the fuel and make something new. How oxygen, here, is another definition of metaphor.

Think back to your high school literature classes and the idea that a metaphor is made up of the tenor and the vehicle. That the tenor is the subject to which a new description will be applied and the vehicle as the object from which attributes are borrowed. It is, for me, a clunky way of explaining something we just implicitly seem to know how to do: how to name things in relation to other things.

Think of the fuel as the tenor and the heat as the vehicle. Think of oxygen as taking the fuel and heat and turning them into the metaphor of fire.

In the poem “Lemons Are Not Nipples” Pence argues about metaphor when she says, “The tip of a lemon is not a nipple. / . . . No thing / is anything else / These are lies a poet tells to avoid / certain truths.” And yet, by the end of the poem, the speaker will again describe the leaving father as, “Less a man than a metaphor, pointing someplace else.” The father is someone who can only be understood as something else because the father does not fit into the “normal” definition of a father. This is the only truth, the only oxygen, that the speaker can breathe.

Now that we have the fire I’d like to conclude by looking at the poem “Normalization of Deviance” which starts with a look back to the 1986 Challenger disaster.

While watching the news coverage with her family, the speaker notes, “Dad blinked at a break in the news coverage / walked out the door, leaving my brother and me.” The brother and the speaker (ages 16 and 10) get by until their father returns with money for groceries and heat: the necessities of food to fuel the body’s internal fires and the paid for heat necessary to keep a house, a hopeful home, warm.

These normal fires are ones that most children don’t have to consider. They are just provided. Pence deftly juxtaposes the Challenger’s small break from normalcy, “a single cut from a small piece of falling foam,” with her speaker’s own realization that it takes little to start a fire that can turn a family or a, “billion-dollar marvel…to dust over the Texas sky.” She knows that fire is a bringer of life, but also a taker.

Perhaps my attempt to understand Pence’s collection through this analogy of building a fire is, at best, clunky, but I wanted to do more than just write a review that said: this is a good book and here is why because I know I really like something when I want to respond to it; when I want to join in the conversation. If you’ll allow me a last, somewhat clichéd image, I want to sit around a fire with Pence (and anyone else who wants to joint us) to talk about metaphors, and poetry, and science, and everything that binds us.

Jessie Carty is the author of seven poetry collections which include the chapbook An Amateur Marriage (Finishing Line, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2011 Robert Watson Prize, and her newest full length collection Practicing Disaster (Aldrich Press in 2014). Jessie is a freelance writer, teacher, and curator of the online literary space “Then and If.” She can be found around the web, especially at More from this author →