The Fire Within

Some of my favorite Wagoner poems can be found in the section of Traveling Light: entitled From Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems 1977-87 sections 1-3. My favorite poem is probably still “Getting There,” the first Wagoner poem I ever cited in this blog and, in my opinion, one of his greatest nature poems.

However, “My Fire” from section two is another remarkable poem that represents section two, which focuses on Wagoner’s early life and offers several touching portraits of his father and mother, particularly in the poem “Their Bodies.”

Although “My Fire” is a powerful poem in and of itself, somewhat reminiscent of section 4 “The Return” of Roethke’s powerful poem “The Lost Son,” it is even more powerful when read in the context of the poems that Wagoner has written about his father in this section. In “My Father’s Garden” he says his father “was called a melter. He tried to keep his brain/ From melting in those tyger-mouthed mills” and in “My Father’s Football Game” he says his father would “smile then/ For the linemen, his team, the scoreless linemen getting even.” Wagoner presents an image of a powerful man who is willing to sacrifice himself to support his family.

It is in that light we must see “My Fire,” because symbolically the narrator is trying to emulate his father. Literally, of course, the narrator is merely tending the coal furnace, a job that has fallen to many a young man when coal furnaces were the main means of heating a house. In another sense, though, simply being given the chore of tending the furnace was a sign of becoming a man, for it was far too arduous and too dangerous to assign to a mere child.

My Fire

In the cave under our house
I tended the fire: a furnace
Where black fossils of ferns
And swamp-shaking dinosaurs
Would burn through the cold mornings
If I shook the dying and dead
Ashes down through the grate
And, with firetongs, hauled out clinkers
Like the vertebrae of monsters.

I made my magic there,
Not the bloody charms of hunters,
Not shamans or animals
Painted on damp walls,
But something from fire. My father
Tended huge rows of fires
And burned with them all day,
Sometimes all evening, all night
In a steelmill, brought fire home
On his face and his burnt skin
And slept, glowing dark red.

My fire made steam in coils
And pipes and radiators
Poured from the steel he made
Somewhere I’d only seen
Far off, the burning mountains
Where God kept His true flame
To Himself, melting and turning
Blood-colored ore to pigs
And men to something stranger.

My spirit would swell and sing
Inside those pipes, would knock
And rattle to be let out,
Would circle through walls and floors,
Turn back to water and fall
To the fire again, turn white,
Rise hissing in every room
Against the windows to grow
Fronds and bone-white flowers,
All ice in a frozen garden.

The first two stanzas presents a nearly mythic image, for the basement isn’t a merely a basement but instead a cave, a place where the boy made his “magic,” a magic comparable to the “bloody charms of hunters” or the “animals/Painted on damp walls.” Coal is commonly thought to be made from compressed plants and animals, but his emphasis on “fossils of ferns” and “swamp-shaking dinosaurs” gives his attempts to stoke the fires that provide warmth to the family a mythic quality.

Of course, boys’ attempts to emulate, and surpass, their fathers is probably as old as time itself. And that’s surely what the narrator is about here, though he also realizes that this fire is a far cry from the truly heroic fires his father feeds. The radiators that contain the steam produced by the furnace come from the “steel he made” in “the burning mountains/ Where God kept His true flame/ To himself.” And if the father himself isn’t seen as “God,” he is certainly much closer to God than the boy is.

Perhaps this admiration of the father is enhanced by the narrator’s realization that the steelmill fires are slowly but surely destroying his father, “turning/Blood-colored ore to pigs/ And men to something stranger.” This veiled reference to Odysseus and his men’s encounter with Circe does not seem entirely accidental.

Though the narrator realized that he did not measure up to his father, his “spirit” is trying to do precisely that. Like steam, it would rise up and “knock and rattle to be let out,” only to be restrained by the very radiators made from his father’s steel. Still, his spirit did not give up, for it would rise again and again as the steam water returned to the furnace, always attempting to rise again, growing “Fronds and bone-white flowers,/ All ice in a frozen garden” awaiting the time when it would truly flower on its own.