Trying for Fire
Right now, even if a muscular woman wanted
to teach me the power of her skin
I'd probably just stand here with my hands
jammed in my pockets. Tonight
I'm feeling weak as water, watching the wind
bandage the moon. That's how it is tonight:
sky like tar, thin gauzy clouds,
a couple lame stars. A car rips by —
the driver's cigarette pinwheels past
the dog I saw hit this afternoon.
One second he was trotting along
with his wet nose tasting the air,
next thing I know he's off the curb,
a car swerves and, bam, it's over. For an instant,
he didn't seem to understand he was dying —
he lifted his head as if he might still reach
the dark-green trash bags half-open
on the other side of the street.
I wish someone could tell me
how to live in the city. My friends
just shake their heads and shrug. I
can't go to church — I'm embarrassed by things
preachers say we should believe.
I would talk to my wife, but she's worried
about the house. Whenever she listens
she hears the shingles giving in
to the rain. If I read the paper
I start believing some stranger
has got my name in his pocket —
on a matchbook next to his knife.
When I was twelve I'd take out the trash —
the garage would open like some ogre's cave
while just above my head the Monday Night Movie
stepped out of the television, and my parents
leaned back in their chairs. I can still hear
my father's voice coming through the floor,
"Boy, make sure you don't make a mess down there."
I remember the red-brick caterpillar of row houses
on Belfield Avenue and, not much higher than the rooftops,
the moon, soft and pale as a nun's thigh.
I had a plan back then--my feet were made
for football: each toe had the heart
of a different animal, so I ran
ten ways at once. I knew I'd play pro,
and live with my best friend, and
when Vanessa let us pull up her sweater
those deep-brown balloony mounds made me believe
in a world where eventually you could touch
whatever you didn't understand.
If I was afraid of anything it was
my bedroom when my parents made me
turn out the light: that knocking noise
that kept coming from the walls,
the shadow shapes by the bookshelf,
the feeling that something was always there
just waiting for me to close my eyes.
But only sleep would get me, and I'd
wake up running for my bike, my life
jingling like a little bell on the breeze.
I understood so little that I
understood it all, and I still know
what it meant to be one of the boys
who had never kissed a girl.
I never did play pro football.
I never got to do my mad-horse,
mountain goat, happy-wolf dance
for the blaring fans in the Astro Dome.
I never snagged a one-hander over the middle
against Green Bay and stole my snaky way
down the sideline for the game-breaking six.
And now, the city is crouched like a mugger
behind me — right outside, in the alley behind my door,
a man stabbed this guy for his wallet, and sometimes
I see this four-year-old with his face all bruised,
his father holding his hand like a vise. When I
turn on the radio the music is just like the news.
So, what should I do — close my eyes and hope
whatever's out there will just let me sleep?
I won't sleep tonight. I'll stay near my TV
and watch the police get everybody.
Across the street a woman is letting
her phone ring. I see her in the kitchen
stirring something on the stove. Farther off
a small dog chips the quiet with his bark.
Above me the moon looks like a nickel
in a murky little creek. This
is the same moon that saw me twelve,
without a single bill to pay, zinging
soup can tops into the dark — I called them
flying saucers. This is the same
white light that touched dinosaurs, that
found the first people trying for fire.
It must have been very good, that moment
when wood smoke turned to flickering, when
they believed night was broken
once and for all — I wonder what almost-words
were spoken. I wonder how long
before that first flame went out.
BIO: In addition to his latest book of poems, Hammerlock, Tim Seibles is the author of four other collections of poetry, Body Moves, Hurdy-Gurdy, and the chapbooks Kerosene and Ten Miles An Hour. He is a former NEA fellow and received an Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. Most recently he was a finalist for The Library of Virginia Book Award for Poetry. His work has been featured in anthologies such as New American Poets of the ’90s, Outsiders, In Search of Color Everywhere, Verse and Universe, and A Way Out of No Way. He lives in Norfolk, Virginia where he teaches in Old Dominion University's English Department and MFA in Writing Program.
An Interview with Tim Seibles by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I think one of the things I like in particular about "Trying For Fire," and about your poetry in general, is the ease with which the narrative unfolds on the page. This poem moves much like the boy playing football, "ten ways at once," and, yet, rarely leaves the reader feeling left out. Obviously, this is one of the many goals of your poetry, and I think of many poets, though some of us, including myself, are nowhere near as successful at this as you are.
I'm wondering how it is that you manage to keep this poem together, how you keep it so controlled, elegant, even though it covers such an immense territory. And, while I know the answer to this question is most likely a resounding no, is writing poetry easy for you? You certainly make it look easy.
Timothy Seibles: Well, you're right, it's not easy, but I love to write poems, so the revision work is mostly a pleasure. I think most of the writing we like is the product of patience and sweat. If I'm able to move seamlessly in some poems it's probably the result of reading a lot of good poems. Bit by bit the things you read infiltrate your own sense of strategy.
AMK: Another aspect of this poem that I think makes it so inviting is that it doesn't announce itself as a poem. By "announce" I mean, the poem looks like a poem. It has relatively short lines, a title at the top, is chocked full of metaphor, sound, and image, but, unlike a poem by, say, Robert Pinsky, "Trying For Fire" doesn't declare from the mountain top: "I am a poem!"
Some obviously criticize contemporary poetry for its "lack" of traditional structure and for being "too" accessible. Ironically, many people who don't read and/or write much poetry are sort of puzzled by contemporary poetry for these reasons as well.
What do you think of this reading of contemporary poetry? Is this poem rooted in any sort of traditional structure or element of romantic/modern poetry? If I asked you to "define" contemporary poetry in some way, could you?
TS: For me, there's no such thing as "too accessible." Half the battle— if not more than half— is in finding language that seems both accurate (with regard to the subject) and inviting to a reader. If I didn't care about communicating I'd wouldn't write poems; I'd simply write in a diary or journal. A poem, in my eyes, is a public document of experience— meant to be shared. I think people read poetry to discover things about the world and about themselves.
A poem is an invitation to think hard about the human condition, to recognize differences in experience and to see our own struggles in the lives/voices of others. If a poem is carelessly obscure it can't reveal anything worthwhile, and poetry is about revelation, not adding confusion to an already difficult world.
With regard to traditional structure, poetry— all poems— want to be 'the best words in the best order.' Free verse, formal verse, it doesn't matter. The tradition that interests me most is the tradition of employing language with great care to capture something essential about our time in the world. Both free verse and formal verse can do that— and both can fail. The fact that the structure of free verse is less rigid than that of formal verse only makes for different kinds of challenges. In the final analysis, all poets simply want to get it 'right'— how ever that's construed.
AMK: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing this poem? Where did it come from? How did it evolve over time?
TS: It's hard to say where a poem comes from. "Trying for Fire" is a pretty accurate poem— autobiographically speaking— so maybe it originates with the impulse to remember my life and get some sense of how I became the person that I am and, then, to situate my single life in the larger history of the world. One of the things that drives me to write is the desire to 'see' who I am and to figure out 'how' I belong (or don't belong) here.
AMK: Lastly, I think that anyone who is dedicated to what they do has a sort of internal ranking of that which they produce. Do you mind my asking how highly this poem ranks in your mind and why?
TS: Truthfully, I don't do much internal ranking, but I like this poem a lot— and I still like it after having written it almost 20 years ago. Like most writers, I’m most excited by what I'm doing now. Every poem one writes leads to the next poem, so there's the sense of 'growing' as one writes. This means I'm always most passionate about the newest thing I've written.
Thanks for spending some time with my poems, Andy.
AMK: Thank you.