Poem of the Week | March 02, 2015

This week we’re delighted to offer a new poem by Todd Davis. Davis is the author of four collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. He is the winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and the Chautauqua Editors Prize. He teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.
Author’s note:

While fishing and hiking in Montana in August 2013, I was aware each day of the threat of wildfires that were burning fifty miles away. It was only a month after 19 firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and the smoke that drifted over my head became a space of empathy and imagination that mixed with my desire for that tragedy to be rewritten.
The history and policy of fire suppression in the United States has not always made ecological sense. Many species need fire to regenerate; the age and species diversity of a forest is affected by periodic fire as well; and fire ultimately helps reduce dead-wood resources, maintaining a balance that can help to prevent giant wildfires.
But the firefighters who risk their lives to contain wildfires do not make the policies that radically alter the kinds of conflagrations they will face. The work they do is immediate and dangerous and saves the lives and property of many people.
I suppose mixed into all of this is Aldo Leopold’s admonition to “think like a mountain.” That’s what all those other lives are doing in this poem, running with me and around me and toward what might save all of us…


Fire Suppression

We humans
are smaller than they, and crawl


about and about the smoky map.


—Denise Levertov


Every time the lightning struck the match
of a fir or spruce limb, we blew it out,
set backfires and dug trenches. With the forest
smudged in smoke, brittle, drier with each summer,
I struggled not to lose my way. Making the jump
was easy, floating above the visible world
in a haze. I navigated by the blue of three streams
that braid and collect in the sink of a modest lake.
Most of the fires we start are small.
You can barely hear them whisper.
Blue flame beneath a kettle. The flicker
of light from a candle. Even the log that snaps
and sparks in the hearth is conversational.
But when I heard the wildfire scream
along the canyon wall, unbearable heat
forming at its mouth, I understood
the meaning of profane. First seven mule deer
leapt past. Then a cow moose with two calves
galloped by. Four bear followed, as well as eight
bighorn sheep, several mink and pika, a herd
of elk, a skulk of fox, and too many coyote
to count. Colliding in the face of sure predation,
the fire owned three sides of the scorching net,
and like the sun, it wanted to burn itself into a circle.
I discarded my ax, my pack, the doubt that slowed
my feet. In pursuit, the heavy musk of exertion
and fear drowned my ragged breath, and the cadence
of hooves and claws tore through my voice, echoes
crossing the basin of water I’d seen from the sky:
the promise we’d all be immersed in its depths
as fire seared the air above our heads.