The Fire Lit & Nearing
by J.G. McClure
Indolent Books, 2018.

                                          You will be alone always and then you will die.
                                             –Richard Siken
The image evoked by the title, The Fire Lit & Nearing (Indolent Press, 2018) is both micro (a match flame inching towards your fingers), and macro (a forest fire jumping the fireline). It also summons the spark that lights up when we are about to fall in love. You know you can’t stop it; you know it will damage you; and there’s not a thing you can do about it. Like folks who rebuild on fire-prone land, this is not the first time you have been burnt and won’t be the last. So why?

Perhaps it is so we can make art of it.

Sometimes very high art. I was delighted by how the preface poem in The Fire Lit & Nearing exploits the homecoming of Ulysses, and so, in no way prepared me for a book of poems eulogizing the end of a very present-day relationship. “The Odyssey II” opens with,

After the joy there are questions
why he alone returned,

And closes with,

And what is Penelope beside The Idea
of Penelope, for whom he longs
beside the sea, watching the rise
and dip of distant masts? O gods
may we find a way to her.

I relished this because I love being surprised. And reminded that “The Idea” of a thing always becomes the thing itself. This collection is entirely a cautionary tale of destructive ideas about things: not destruction by fire, but by lost love, cycled through many iterations. Poems tend to embed loss in some majestic or personal way, but rarely both. Can an entire book of poems about a lost love retain our interest? This reader is astonished that the poet has discovered so many diverse ways to perform his loss.

Throughout this book, a personal litany is tendered metaphorically into magical realism and hyperbole. It is a Greek myth, a spaceship, the end of the world, an ekphrasis of an Edward Munch painting, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, a pet named “Sadness.” Every poem, however far-fetched, reveals snippets of the writer’s obsession with his loss. In “Weeping Nude,” the speaker recognizes that,

Not even this is bare enough: strip off the clothes
and still you’re left, buckled alone
in the straitjacket of your skin. He understands
pain, of course: his own.

And in “The Cat” a monstrous pet performs ever greater destructive ploys, until finally she is “dragging down the sun for us” while,

                                          The air gets hotter every day.
Eggs boil inside their shells; pigeons burn mid-flight—but she looks so
happy coming near, fire shimmering in her eyes.
Weeping, doomed, we lay out her favorite treats. In the end, there’s
only love.”

There’s that fire, lit and nearing.

In the 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, the protagonist comes to understand that whoever comes to a fork in the road choses only one path, but the outcomes of both paths will occur, although in different ‘worlds’. This is the literary underpinning for quantum mechanics, which arose later. It is quite human to look back over events—particularly ones we regret—and wonder “if only.” In “Multiverse,” the speaker considers a world “where we take the same bus route every day / and never speak” but also “worlds in which buses were never invented.” Later in “Reverse,” he runs the entire story of the relationship backwards to its inception, where,

He reaches into his coat and unfolds a paper
where her number is written, she clicks a pen and carefully
unwrites each digit. All nervous smiles,
the man moves to a different table.

He spits whiskey into a glass,
where cubes of ice are slowly forming.

While the story gets lost in its art at times, the lost lover—the absent protagonist—is ever-present. She is “Ellie,” first named in the poem, “Romantic” where “The 19th Century showed up drunk again” and,

Oh Ellie, it should have been our time—
we were so good at sadness.

The sequencing of poems here reminds me of a game in which hints are added, one after another, for the contestant to guess at how the story will end. Early in The Fire Lit & Nearing, we find undoing. To that, add kismet. To that, add attachment, transference, denial, transience, reversal and forgetting. If you can’t mine the data with these hints, add deception, revenge, despair and suicide. Even if you are the hopeful sort and guess that things will inevitably end well, you will finally face facts: every poem in this volume is itself a metaphor for the loss of this particular love object. To the end, Ellie remains lost.

Now, there are many novels I could name that are purely stories of love lost, but entire books of poetry? I’m having trouble here. Threads throughout of romantic loss, of course. But then, the Siken quote above says almost everything that can be said. Maybe “Stag’s Leap” by Sharon Olds—another poet who has many ways to say the same thing without boring me. (Ok, I’m not saying McClure is as good as Olds, but I am saying he keeps me attentive and wanting more, even when I fully know how things will shake out.) And, The Fire Lit & Nearing somewhat reminds me of the ruminating and recapitulating regret in Lydia Davis’ short prose in “The End of the Story.” As we all know, survivors need to tell their story over and over, to anyone who will listen. The trick to holding an audience in the retelling is to keep saying something different, something more philosophical and profound, or, to keep from crying, something funny.

Without fail in these 41 poems, McClure says something unique, displaying complex vagaries of emotion. They are often morosely hilarious. In “Self Portrait as Man and Pet,” the poet’s doglike pet is, “a faithful Sadness. He loves you so much.” In “Ars Poetica,” an underground jazz hall is abandoned to rats because it is “a wonderful idea and an incredible / fire hazard.” In “Self Portrait as Ego and Vehicle, McClure’s speaker fends off nihilism by inflating ego with the thought, “there’s nothing he thinks he can’t fix.”

As preface, there is “Coda.” As the story performs its slow transition from grandiose to ordinary loss, perhaps there will be some healing. Some coming to terms with. Some recognition of how run-of-the-mill a break-up really is when compared with “multiple sclerosis,” or “incurable.” On close reflection, the speaker admits, “There are sadnesses // deeper than my sadness.” Finally, reaching for the comfort of memory, he is able to say,

I’m ashamed to curve so fast
into my little losses. How in spite
of herself she believed in symbols.
How she tucked her toes into my knees as she slept.

Perhaps what is gained from exploring loss so deeply, so obsessively (something we all do) is this book of poems which offer so much wry humor, so little self-pity, and so much more than a retelling of the loss of a relationship. Ultimately there is wisdom here—if only the wisdom of not taking oneself too seriously. Better yet, the writing of damn good poems.