Poem of the Week | April 30, 2018
Jacques J. Rancourt: “A Discourse on the Method”
This week, we are excited to offer a new poem by Jacques J. Rancourt. Rancourt is the author of Novena, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize (Pleiades Press, 2017), and the chapbook, In the Time of PrEP (Beloit Poetry Journal, 2018). He has held poetry fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His poems have appeared in the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets, among others. He lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Rancourt was a finalist for the Missouri Review‘s 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.
A Discourse on the Method
“Because aside from the stars I know nothing in the world but fire which produces light, I studied how to make everything belonging to the nature of fire very clearly understandable.” –Descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637)
How I fed it, wad after wad,
toilet paper in the drizzling dark,
the week I went out
into the hundred mile wilderness
to become a man. It didn’t take
(the fire, I mean), each offering
puffing up damply
in smoke, the roll growing thinner
& thinner, & already (again)
the sharp need to shit.
Fire can introduce different colors
& diverse other qualities into different bodies,
but beside my body, my buddy
Chris watched me not-make fire;
Chris who I dragged along
on this spirit-quest without thinking
that sharing a one-man tent might
look, on the outside, a little bit
like seduction; Chris, who wasn’t gay,
but who wasn’t not gay, either,
when he’d had enough to drink,
but here, without beer,
was our dead end. The markers we thought
we were following, the trail that
melts some bodies & hardens others,
consumes them almost completely,
the pines all stacked like fetches in a quiver
the night the mice drummed down
our sleeping bags to feast
on my half-eaten Cliff Bar
with their weird alien hands,
as admirable as anything
that occurs in nature. Isn’t this,
after all, what I wanted?
To be miserable & drenched with it?
To come back, transmuted from cinders
into glass & cut irrevocably,
solely by the violence of my actions?
To not see, even momentarily, who,
or what, I wasn’t? But this poem
isn’t about fire, how it sometimes has heat
without light & sometimes light
without heat, but rather how the rain,
thickening, snuffed mine out
into scores of ashy scratches,
& even these dissolved completely.
In 2008 I received a grant to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness and write poems about the experience. I never finished the hike. After a dry summer, it down-poured nonstop the week I set out on the trail. I was twenty-years-old at the time, a rule-follower, and respected too reverently the Appalachian Trail’s guidelines concerning the use of gasoline. To my chagrin, over the entire five days (because I only made it five days), I watched as hiker after hiker squirted gasoline into an empty tuna can, dropped a lit match in it, and cooked their freeze-dried dinner in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile I’d attempt futilely to construct a fire using my best Boy Scout skills, building a teepee of twigs and damp bark. Eventually, desperation lead me to use what little toilet paper I brought with me as kindling. Eventually, desperation lead me to eat my freeze-dried packaged dinners dry.
I’ve been trying to write a poem for the better part of the past decade about how this trip, this inability to construct a fire, intersected with a troubled coming out and a complicated self-image. Each summer my religious family lived in their off-the-grid cabin in the woods, and I spent my whole childhood watching my father build fires out of nothing. I felt like a failure in myriad ways during that hike, and I’ve been trying to write this failure into a poem ever since. It was not until I encountered Descartes’s “A Discourse of a Method” where he describes—in painstaking detail—the nature of light, particularly the different properties of fire, that I found a gateway into this poem. The way I incorporate a source text is inspired after Kathryn Neurnberger’s “The Symbolic Head (1883) as When Was the Last Time?,” the opening poem from her visionary book The End of Pink.
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