Back to Issue Thirty-Six

Elegy On Fire



I escaped from a building on fire
with only my jeans pulled on and
not even shoes on my feet
as I stood there thinking of that
Peggy Lee song Is That All There
Is a stranger put a blanket on me
I wasn’t on fire and didn’t need
to be put out but it was clear I
needed comfort of some sort and
a human in the vicinity gave it

This is a Fourth of July tale the
hazards of smoldering ordnance in
the dumpster next to the kitchen
window the careless casual way
we toss live ammo in the air and
golly gee ain’t that a shimmerer
ain’t that a beaut my father would
say who grew up in the land of
fireworks and taught me before I
could walk and talk the way to
light a fuse is hold it with your
fingernails so if it burns fast it
might burn you but it won’t ex
plode and always immerse the
shells in water after just in case

He who loved bombs went to Nam
collected guns I always thought
like poets come out with collected
poems my father should come out
with collected guns but now he’s
buried in Sai Pan though I think
he’d appreciate the way my humor
bombs sometimes a weeping willow
he said looking up at the sky while
the bombs were bursting in air

What would he make of this display
of affection years after we ran out of
things to say and what would he
make of this country he served and
questioned at the same time the way
we love and don’t love our parents
who are after all just grown kids a
little smarter than us perhaps but not
by much especially when they vote

I want to wake up the neighbors
the way they once woke me the
building’s on fire get out get out
I want to have already rebuilt after
patriotism has hurled its sparklers
in the trash and scorched us all

On my way home on base I’d hear
retreat on the public address and
stand at attention as it played out
over the quonset huts and fences
over the bombers that sat on alert
and the supersonic reconnaissance
craft and the boys playing stickball
unexploded ordnance left over from
a previous war the tripwires cross
the fields like spider silk but finer
I put my hand over my heart I put
my heart over my head I loved in
the midst of war the war’s music
the Iliad lay on my bunk open to
the body of Hector on his shield

I was a boy it was an island it was
far from home but it was quarters
and soldiers beaches of white sand
and boy the fireworks they broke
into a thousand threads cascading
over the fields of Troy but then I
woke in a city on fire and when I
went to carry my father out he was
already on a pyre he lit himself
it’s a wonder the rest of us got out



D.A. Powell‘s books include Repast (Graywolf, 2014) and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf, 2012). He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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