The Fire
by Deborah Parédez

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The night Tony decided to end it all,
bathing his head and limbs in gasoline
and igniting himself into effigy
in the third floor dressing room of the theatre,
roaring and tumbling down the stairs
like the damned on their way to hell,
you were working late in the scene shop,
goggles on, all safety procedures met,
guiding plywood through the table saw’s teeth.

The night Tony seared the shop’s doorframe
with the stench of flesh in flames and the
screams pouring from the O once his mouth now
melting away, you stayed calm, moved
quickly, took all the necessary precautions,
you knew what to do to save his life
and your own and you did it and then you drove home,
pulled two six-packs from the fridge,
hauled them to the back porch, tilted your face
toward the heavens and drank
until every spark of light blazing from
the stars went dark, you drank
until your body could hold nothing more
and then you pissed right there in the yard, your bladder
now emptied of its fire.

That night you learned the danger of a body
burning and pleading and staggering towards you
so that years later when I, a bright girl, ablaze
and reckless, rushed to embrace you,
you did only what you knew best to do:
you stayed calm, moved quickly,
took all the necessary precautions,
snuffed out every ember,
saved yourself.

-

Even before we encounter the first line in Deborah Parédez’s poem, the title announces an array of possibilities. Fire as heat. Fire depicting brightness. Fire as something lethal, as in: the Great Chicago Fire. Or on a more modest scale, perhaps Issa’s moth will be “burnt to a crisp” by an alluring sliver of fire…

I’m going to argue that the first line (“The night Tony decided to end it all,”)—that is, the transition from the title of the poem to the beginning of the poem—produces our first “turn.” Let’s establish the term. I view a “turn” as a place in the poem where the effect on the reader is often one of surprise and heightened engagement.

Attempted suicide (“The night Tony decided to end it all,”) is not a concept that sprang to mind when I first read that title (“The Fire”). Heat? Yes. Brightness? Check. Passion? Indeed. Potential destruction? Sure. Suicide? Not really.

In other words, the opening line jolted me to attention because I wasn’t expecting it. It’s not the poem’s principal “turn” (We’ll get to that later.), but it produced in me the effect of one, at least as I understand and experience “turns.” The first stanza continues, portraying a vivid sequence very much in sync with the poem’s title:

bathing his head and limbs in gasoline
and igniting himself into effigy
in the third floor dressing room of the theater,
roaring and tumbling down the stairs
like the damned on their way to hell,

That the scene is a “theater” bolsters the notion that what’s unfolding here is indeed dramatic (bordering on the melodramatic one might say), with a trace of Dante (“like the damned on their way to hell,”) woven in. And then we get to the poem’s second “turn”: “you were working late in the scene shop, / goggles on, all safety procedures met, / guiding plywood through the table saw’s teeth.”

The introduction of the second-person “you” doesn’t so much surprise as introduce a particular intimacy that, until then, wasn’t present. The insertion and further development of this unnamed member of the stage crew also suggests that this person is the focus of the poem. “Tony,” by the end of the second stanza, feels more like a vehicle to get us to the poem’s true subject. But this second “turn” also lets us know—and this is key—that our “you” is deliberate and methodical when it comes to protecting himself (“goggles on”) and that he’s not squeamish about engaging in a potentially dangerous activity (“guiding plywood through the table saw’s teeth.”) We’ll later see how these traits become especially relevant for the poem’s third and principal “turn.”

In the second stanza, which is also the longest, we a get a more graphic, almost gruesome depiction of Tony’s burn-induced injuries. And through it all, our “you” “stayed calm” and did the necessary to “save his [Tony’s] life / and your [his] own”. Although the second stanza does not, in my view, contain a “turn,” the “plot” does seem to “thicken” (as opposed to “twist”): after our “you” rescues Tony, he goes home and gets plastered, shit-faced (pick your term), downing “two six-packs” of beer. The stanza ends: “and then you pissed right there in the yard, your bladder / now emptied of its fire.”

“The Fire” could have ended there.

Had it done so, a reader might plausibly conclude something like: “oh okay, I get it: the literal fire becomes a metaphorical one—the fire of alcohol, perhaps alcoholism, etc.” In short, it’s the tidy ending of a competently written poem. Truth be told: if “The Fire” had ended there, the two aforementioned “turns” would feel more like “burps.”

Fortunately for us, the third and final stanza sets up what I’m going to call a “wallop-of-a-turn.” Here is how Parédez sets it up: “That night you learned the danger of a body / burning and pleading and staggering towards you.”

Actually, the “turn” begins with these two lines. Unlike in the opening lines of the first and second stanza (“The night Tony decided to end it all,”/ /“The night Tony seared the shop’s doorframe”), there is no explicit mention of “Tony” here, suggesting that the “body” above can be Tony, sure, but also someone other than Tony, hinting that something additional is going on. Comparing the second line of this third stanza with the second lines of the first and second stanzas, respectively, also supports the idea that this third and final “turn” is already underway. Let’s have a look:

Bathing his head and limbs in gasoline                     (line 2 of stanza 1)

with the stench of flesh and flames in the                 (line 2 of stanza 2)

burning and pleading and staggering towards you    (line 2 of stanza 3)

While all three of these lines make reference to (or suggest) fire and injury, only the third line includes a reference to our “you” (“towards you”), signaling that we are truly on the cusp of something—that this “turn” is about to fully deliver its knock-out punch.

I’ve been reading “The Fire” since 2004 when I first encountered it in Deborah Parédez’s collection, This Side of Skin (Wings Press, 2002). At the time, I was editing an anthology of Latino poetry, deciding which of Parédez’s poems I was going to include. Needless to say, “The Fire” topped my list. It’s more: when I began to promote the anthology (published in 2007) at readings, this was the poem I most often shared in public. And a lot had to do with the “turn” currently under discussion, a “turn” that culminates and concludes the poem:

so that years later when I, a bright girl, ablaze
and reckless, rushed to embrace you,
you did only what you knew best to do:
you stayed calm, moved quickly,
took all the necessary precautions,
snuffed out every ember,
saved yourself.

The leap of those first two lines—in both sound and sense—is the heart of this “turn.” The internal and slant rhyme of “later” / “ablaze” / “embrace” heightens one’s aural experience of what is being said: the speaker is comparing herself to the dangerously blazing Tony. Her youth and passion are something that our “you” considers hazardous to his health (“reckless, rushed to embrace you”). It’s not clear why he thinks this, though experience and time seem to have been, in part, his teachers (“so that years later”). And so, like the younger version of himself who knew what to do in order to methodically save Tony’s life, he knows “what best to do” in this situation, remaining calm, moving quickly, taking “all the necessary precautions”. But the fire he is putting out is not a literal one, but rather a metaphorical one, “snuff[ing] out every ember”. Only this time, it is not a third party he is rescuing; it’s his own life he is safeguarding (“saved yourself”). The ending of “The Fire” evokes a complicated, only partially told tale. And it also, in my view, creates a space for us to reflect upon our own experience, our own simmering stories.

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Francisco Aragón is the author of the poetry collection, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press, 2005) and the multi-genre volume, Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press, 2010), in addition to the editor of the award-winning anthology, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007). He is the director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. A native of San Francisco and former long-term resident of Spain, he currently resides in Arlington, VA. Visit his website at: http://franciscoaragon.net  

“The Fire” was originally published in This Side of Skin (Wings Press 2002) and also appears in The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, edited by Francisco Aragon (University of Arizona Press 2007) and on the Poetry Foundation website.