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At sunset on the Fourth of July,
just as the Shriners began shooting
fireworks over the football stadium,
the first McDonald's in Las Cruces
switched on its lights and unlocked its doors
and shone there harshly
against the nothing, like a shrine
to itself, a prize we could claim.
And that same evening,
while my brother and I were waiting in line
to place our orders,
by some act of grace
the vacant lot across the street
caught fire, starting small,
then gaining, tossing everything-every tumbleweed
and paper cup-into its sack of flames.
We were children.
We'd walked three miles to get there.
We'd walked across the interstate
just like we said we wouldn't.
What a pleasure-
I'm tempted to say what a relief-
it was to see it : fire
dancing around in front of us
like a trained animal.
We ate our burgers on the sidewalk.
They were all right.
Behind us, in the sky,
the city of Las Cruces
was explaining its independence
the best way it knew how.
We knew very little, almost nothing,
though at some point that evening,
when the fire was at a peak
and the heat coming off it
made us squint from across the street,
my brother leaned in to me
and said, with the satisfaction of someone
who has won a long, ongoing argument,
"This is a miracle."
His mouth was an O
of grease and ketchup,
his cheeks red
with heat and admiration.
He looked-I'm tempted to say-
like an angel.
He looked like
he'd never recover.
The fire lifted its big,
meaty tongue as if to speak, then fell over
and kept burning.
It got late. We had to go.
We walked home along the ditch ,
kicking each other, grown tired once again
of each other's company.
We grew up.
Something big was built
on that vacant lot, something
that wasn't big enough
and was torn down
so something bigger
that would go immediately out of business
could take its place.
Now I see what he meant.
wasn't the fire.
The miracle was no one
called the fire department,
no one thought to,
and the miracle was that, allowed
to continue, the fire grew,
caught up with itself
every few yards
and grew. And the miracle was
no one stopped it, and the miracle was
no one wanted to stop it.
If Your Mother Was to Tell Your Life Story
It would start with her.
It could learn to tie a knot; you would be bound to it.
It would stink and she'd win.
It'd be nice to know.
Once and for all.
The mellow swings behind the house.
The many lives of the cactus garden.
It wouldn't know where to start.
It wouldn't even know the half of it.
It wouldn't know that she was a country, that you'd pledged your allegiance to her.
It wouldn't know there'd been a war.
It would forget everything.
It would get things so wrong it wouldn't even be funny.
It would be funny.
It would be shrewd.
It would delight her, wouldn't it?
Oh, those little armies. How they'd perished.
Her thirties, her forties, her fifties.
Her heart, her heart: lick of flame, little fish.
It could leave you behind.
It could take you away.
It would be hers. And it would be yours.
And then it would be hers again.
When his acne began to clear up,
my brother put on new cleats
and played one last year
of varsity football, his face
deeply scarred, running the field
with a rage people watching
could ease back in their seats
and fall in love with.
Resting, he'd bend at the waist,
hands on his knees, and suck
at the air like it was the enemy.
And in this way the days
of not knowing if things
were getting better or worse-
those days of waiting
for the storm of hormones
to pass-grew short and cold
until they were gone entirely
and he could begin forgetting them,
one by unforgettable one.
Of course, I could tell you everything
my brother has forgotten
about those bad years: the metallic smell
of his breath, how he became
meticulous about his clothing,
waking early to iron starch
into his T-shirts, how he'd plan
and execute small acts of violence,
once killing all my mother's
houseplants by pulling them up,
snipping their roots with a pair
of kitchen scissors, and then
sticking them back in the soil.
All he had then was tidiness
and cruelty, and he favored cruelty.
It was his last, dulled weapon-a hatchet
whose blade couldn't kill with one
blow, but could abuse, nonetheless,
to death, and I watched him use it
with great fear and interest.
I was his witness. Let me tell you
how the field mouse looked
when I pried open the can
of house paint to find it writhing there,
dying, eyes coated, face coated, mouth
opening and closing, and how
my brother had suddenly seemed
so lovely, so calm, as if he'd just
landed, handing the can to me,
saying, "Open it. Just open it."
-from Burn Lake
BIO: Carrie Fountain was born and raised in Mesilla, New Mexico. She was a fellow at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, AGNI, and Southwestern American Literature, among others. Her debut collection of poems, Burn Lake (Penguin Books, 2010), was a winner of a 2009 National Poetry Series Award. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at St. Edward’s University.
An Interview with Carrie Fountain by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Many of the poems in your first book, Burn Lake, are about growing up and the cruelty that seems to be a large part of one’s coming of age. There’s also an almost grand sense of silence and loneliness in your work; a sense of being left out in the voice of the speaker even as she’s clearly included in the goings on of her hometown. This sensation is in the poems featured here but also permeates the book in an almost thematic fashion. Is this something you were aiming for as you composed Burn Lake or something that emerged on its own?
Carrie Fountain: Not at all! It wasn’t something I was aiming for. It’s been very interesting to hear this response from readers. I just read a review of Burn Lake that basically boiled down to: I liked the book, but I wish that gal wasn’t so damn sad. This is surprising to me.
I had a baby last summer. In some of the child development books I’ve been reading, I’ve come across the notion of wishful thinking (Freud called it magical thinking): the time when children project their own internal states onto the world around them. The child is protected by their imagination from concepts they can’t comprehend. Many of the poems in Burn Lake are set in adolescence, at the end of wishful thinking. The time when we begin to see that the world is much larger. We see that we belong to the world, rather than the world belonging to us. There’s a very pure heartbreak in that, and a loneliness, and a cruelty. And there is silence there. A reckoning with silence. A coming to terms. And there is a holiness to it, too, I think, if you’re lucky enough to be inclined to see things as such. As far as this affects the theme or tone of the poems: I wasn’t aiming for it, no, but at the same time that seems a very natural tonal response.
AMK: Is theme something you thought about as you wrote the poems in Burn Lake or did that enter your mind as you were selecting poems to include and arranging them.
CF: I’d say that issues of theme didn’t arise until I was trying to get the book published, as I was looking to see how the poems fit together or didn’t. This wasn’t a conscious maneuver. It was organic. There were poems that didn’t fit in this book. I imagine they didn’t fit because they were of a much different tone than the rest of the poems here.
AMK: Many of your poems make use of short, single-line stanzas. Is this use of stanzas and white space meant to slow the reading of the poem down or to give these lines more weight than others? How have you determined to break the lines in “Starting Small”? They don’t seem to be operating in any particular rhythmic scheme but are enjambed in a way that moves the reader’s eye quite swiftly down the page.
CF: The way I used single-lined stanzas and the way I broke the line in “Starting Small” had to do with my focus on the poem’s spoken quality. I was working toward a particular diction, trying to create a voice: a sort of deadpan quality elevated by moments of lyricism and humor. (A very New Mexican way of speaking.) So I’d read the poem aloud into the room and I’d modulate breaks and stanzas based on the way I wanted it to sound out loud: where I wanted it to pause and where I wanted it to halt and where I wanted it off the cuff and where I wanted it to come down hard. So out came this meandering poem. This is hard for me. I like neatness in my poems and in my life. It’s hard for me to stray from the golden rectangle. I like tercets and quatrains and clean windows and carefully folded stacks of bath towels.
But this poem was about the voice in the room. I’m married to a playwright. We spend a lot of time watching theater and talking about performance. I like the idea of a poem being performative—not bombastic or show-offish or mannered. I mean the yearning to perform the language, to invite an audience in, to bring them in closely. My husband once told me about a moment he saw on stage: a man sits down at a table, pours himself a very tall glass of milk—fills it to the very brim—and then drinks it down. Then he sets the glass down again. That’s so performative! I imagine the way the milk residue drips down the inside of the glass. The subtle look on the face after one drinks a entire pint of milk in one go, the little burp that might have to be dealt with. I like drawing attention to the act: to the body (if you have an actor), or to the voice (if you are reading a poem on the page). That’s what I mean by performative. And I don’t know that this can be enacted in the same way on the page as it can be on the stage. But I have hopes.
AMK: I love how quietly and plainly these poems are composed— the voices are crystal clear, the narratives are real and touching, and, perhaps most importantly, the “high” moments in your poems are so much more powerful as a result of the work that surrounds them. I’m thinking of moments like “the vacant lot… / caught fire… / tossing everything… / into its sack of flames” and “the city of Las Cruces / was explaining its independence.” Talk to us about this “plain speak.” Is it an aspect of your aesthetic; something that comes with revision; what?
CF: I think this has to do with my having assimilated the voices of those around me growing up. In Burn Lake I really wanted to draw on the great contradictions that arise in the place where I come from. It’s so many elements coming together at once: small town meets urban sprawl, Podunk meets intellect, English meets Spanish meets Spanglish. And it’s the land itself, too: where earth meets sky. And the influence on the land: where you climb to the top of a mountain and feel you’re the last person on earth, but then you look down and on the other side and there’s an Air Force base, a model Afghani village built into the side of the mesa. Bizarre. The Southwest is a land of contrasts.
AMK: I love your use of anaphora (repetition) in “If Your Mother was to tell your Life Story” and how most of the lines open with the pronoun it, which refers back to the title. There are a number of poems like this out there in the world of Contemporary Poetry these days. What do you think it is that draws us to these sorts of repetitive/ lyrical structures?
CF: I have my beginning poets work with anaphora. The first draft of this poem was my doing an assignment I was about to give to my students. I don’t like to give poetry assignments I wouldn’t want to do myself. (I’m composing a poem entirely in my head over the next week along with my advanced workshop. It’s very hard! I kind of wish I hadn’t assigned us this task! But it’s also very useful; I am using my time at red lights wisely.)
I introduce my beginners to anaphora because it’s such a straightforward way of showing them how repetition can modulate voice and sound and tone. We read Gregory Orr’s “Litany,” a poem in which the speaker tells the story of mistakenly shooting his brother while hunting. Orr uses anaphora in service to voice and tone, beginning each line with the phrase “I remember.” The anaphora there allows the poem to gain both speed and weight as it drags along. Then we read something like Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses,” which uses the same device to create this relentless, driving rhythm. In that poem the anaphoristic phrase sort of disappears, becoming almost purely sound. It’s unnerving and very powerful. Anaphora is a very versatile rhetorical device.
I think there’s a great delight in it too: the list! Out on his run the other day, my husband found someone’s to-do list for their wedding. It was so extensive. It felt so immediate and so personal—yet very perfunctory and boring, too. But we couldn’t stop reading it.
AMK: Most of your poems utilize a 3-5 beat line but this one uses much longer ones. Why is that?
CF: I have no idea. Again, it probably has to do with the way I composed, reading it aloud and letting that guide me in forming the lines.
AMK: “Getting Better” is a pretty awesome poem simply because it utilizes the surprise of the mouse in the house paint at the end so damned well. Surprise, it seems to me, is an interesting notion because it can be used in just about any art form: fiction, poetry, film, cartoons, fine art, music, etc… though I’m not sure we see it often enough in poetry. Is this use of surprise something that came naturally to the poem simply because of the narrative or because you wanted it to have that effect at the end of the poem?
CF: Your question is more interesting than any answer I could come up with. I want to think about it for the rest of my life. You made me think of this piece of art I saw a few years ago (in an Arte Povera exhibit, I think it was at the Geffen in Los Angeles). The piece is a very plain looking box with a floodlight inside it, pointing to the ceiling. The light inside is programmed to turn on at random, but it only goes on for a few moments once a year. No way of knowing when it will happen. It could happen in the middle of the night. Or it could go on while you happen to be looking at it. I don’t suppose that has much to do with your question, really, but the potential for surprise is what makes that piece so powerful. It’s about the very idea of surprise, of chance, and of imagination, too.
The playwright Sherry Kramer talks about how the end of a play should be at once inevitable and impossible. I think about this a lot when I’m reading and writing poems. Ending images, ending phrases: how can they be both inevitable and impossible?
AMK: “Getting Better,” though it’s not a prose poem, reminds me a lot of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel.” Both use very straight-forward language. Both are poems of witness. And both tell stories of cruel acts committed by the powerful on the weak. Was “The Colonel” a poem you had in mind as you were composing “Getting Better”? What poems have had the most impact on your development as a poet and, particularly, on the poems featured here?
CF: Wow. No. “The Colonel” wasn’t in my mind, though I adore that poem.
I don’t know that I could name specific poems that I had in mind while composing “Getting Better.” I was much affected by something I once heard Sharon Olds say in an interview. She was asked something about political poetry and she said that she felt that any poem about a relationship is political, that any relationship—mother/daughter, sister/brother, where one person has any power over another is inherently political. That has made a lot of sense to me.
AMK: What are you working on now?
CF: I’m working on poems for a second collection. I want this collection to open up more in structure, maybe dwell more in the lyrical. I think the title is either going to be “The Talent of the Body” or “Lazarus Dies Again.” What do you think?
AMK: Thank you.
CF: Thank YOU, Andrew.