The Woods Are On Fire is Fleda Brown’s deeply human and intensely felt poetic explorations of her life and world. Her account includes her brain-damaged brother, a rickety family cottage, a puzzling and sometimes frightening father, a timid mother, and the adult life that follows with its loves, divorces, and serious illnesses. Visually and emotionally rich, Brown’s poems call on Einstein, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Law and Order, Elvis, and Beethoven. They stand before the Venus de Milo as well as the moon, as they measure distances between what we make as art and who we are as humans. In wide-ranging forms—from the sestina to prose poems—they focus on the natural world as well as the Delaware legislature and the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton.
The Woods Are On Fire includes nearly fifty new poems, along with poems selected from seven previous books, showcasing an influential American poet’s work over the last few decades.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Woods Are On Fire
New and Selected Poems
By Fleda Brown
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
from Fishing with Blood | 1988
My father is up at 6:30
in his bare chest and pajama bottoms,
whistling among the tomatoes,
brooding over the ruffled petunias
along the driveway wall. I watch him
through the screen door
where the morning has not yet
touched me, thin as a nightgown.
He looks like a circus man, performing
tricks too small for his muscles,
with a tiny paintbrush, lifting
away their yellow powder.
Also he looks like a huge eye
down on the tiny mechanics
of the world. I watch his deliberate
move, his mingling of dust.
My mother is still in bed, soft as clay,
anonymous as sheets. She would get up
and start in on last night's dishes,
if she had the energy.
It seems we have drawn it out
of her, that the sun is wrong to shine.
Her energy is out there, loose
barefoot in the garden, pajama strings
loose, careless of himself, careful
of the type: the Big Boy tomatoes,
the Hungarian yellow peppers.
He might be no one, in the flesh,
except for his green orchestration,
his rows. He whistles "Ode to Joy,"
getting it right, yes, this is it,
is it, ties each note on its trellis
like a good child climbing
to heaven. I stick out my tongue
against the bitter screen, to taste
whether I am a woman or a man, and
whose I am, and for what I was made.
To Mark, My Retarded
Brother, Who Lived 20
Years and Learned to
Speak 300 Words
Nobody has any business but me, to tell how
you came home, a white ball up pitted concrete steps,
home to our grandmother's swirled carpet.
Knitted bundle, you wailed clues of that soft
rotten, that misconnection, that sever, that spasm
that broke your mother's heart into blank starts.
You drug your feet, child.
Across the wood floor your twirling walker,
the rattling dance lurched down
fourteen steps: you were never lucky.
Your spilled blood flowed like menses, expected
rupture, bombardment of corners, ridges, juts.
The record player sat on the chest by the window:
blood, spit, and dirt where you plied
that delicate spinning with your scratched hands.
"Getting to know you," know you, you and
Deborah Kerr on the vowels, one long happy drool.
Hollyhock ladies on the sill, I lined up for you.
With a towel, I held that white head
that smashed into the blank floor
and everything, I think, I could ever know.
You grew to be a crane, your head
bobbling on the tops of your friends
who took you to play with perfect aplomb.
Little citizens already, in the grass,
they calculated games you could not wreck.
I was the one who ran barefoot, terror light,
to grab you loping onto Garland Street,
laughing. I could have bashed in your head,
unsubtle brother, smiling outline.
Angel face, pushing to break with rudiments,
the best word for you is unused.
So your ankles drew up solemnly,
wrists in. The spasm locked. When I came to you
in your sterile steel circus, the last clowns
had gone home. Malicious beard raked your face.
On your head, practical blond hair razed
at short attention.
You seemed so heavy you would never float away.
Then you sank into your coffin in flannel pajamas,
the warmest bed you ever felt.
Every day she walked to school through
the wet grass and along the confusion
of steel, rising to be the new field house.
Every day she walked home, stopping to watch
the huge arches flash with welders
and men yell instructions across the beams.
"It was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon,"
she would say after that, although
it became ordinary only when something happened
to measure it by.
She had crossed the field to Terry Village
where her mother was hanging diapers
on the line and her brother was throwing toys
off his blue quilt. She was standing
on the porch eating a Fig Newton
when she happened to look up and see
the great arch lean and the tiny body drop,
in slow motion, like all catastrophe.
She remembered the little arms waving,
the tremor when the steel struck,
and the dust rising like smoke.
She imagined the body, final
as a bag of sand. She thought of the workman
that morning, buttoning a khaki shirt,
leaving for work, lighting a Lucky Strike
on his way out the door, telling someone good-bye.
She thought of the omens in a regular day,
the arch she walked under ten minutes ago.
She felt like an angel, transcending events.
She thought which muscles she might have tried
if she had been the workman, suddenly needing to fly.
For Grandmother Beth
Just one scandalous year past
our grandmother's death, the second wife
stood homely and trembling ankle-deep
in the lake, taking on water and family
at once. Once, she told me, your grandfather
found the box of hair your grandmother
saved when she had it bobbed. She said
he cried, and I tried to imagine both
wives working it out in heaven. He took
this second one, taught her theories
of economics, gave her his grown children
and grandchildren, money, and houses.
They used to sit at the kitchen table and eat
prunes, the same table where he ate
prunes with my grandmother. Regularity
took him to ninety-five, although
the last year in the nursing home he
couldn't remember who she was, and even
years before that, at the lake, he'd
call her by his dead wife's name. No,
Harry, she'd say, it's Beth, Beth, and
lead him back to where he meant to
go. She never touched the money he left
her, saved it for his children, took
in roomers and lived on interest. Now
she's dead, and all Garth Avenue is
gone from me, from us, the house,
the lilies of the valley on the north
side, oh, it would be a long list, and
who cares now but us. This is what I
have to say for her, who held a place
and saved everything as if she had no
needs, or wishes, except to be no
trouble at all, and to die quickly, a
light turned out to save electric bills.
A Plain Philosophical
Blake Jett in his stripped-down Ford
could roar off with the loose girls. We
walked, cradling Western civilization
in hardback against our breasts.
We were the smart track, and we knew it.
In gym class and homeroom, they
mixed everything up like democracy,
but we knew their signs.
We gave them blue ink, wide
margins, engravable words.
Yet one by one, we came into our hormones,
plebeian as Kotex. Under our skirts,
the bulge of equipment, buried like sin.
Voluminous notes were exchanged on the matter.
Nina Spalding's tight skirts risked
as much as our parents warned, and
overnight, she was gone, with her stomach.
Ricky and Elvis conflicted down our bulletin boards,
a plain philosophical choice: country-club white
or the deep rumble from the edge of black.
A person could settle for anything.
The school could blow up, the town, the USA.
A person could go crazy with waiting.
After school, a person could take a certain bus,
to sit with a certain boy, and leave
her arrogant friends to walk.
Down the hillside,
the ribbon of buses was always numbered.
Inside, their handrails worn to steel,
the wounds of their gray seats picked bare.
Soon the drivers would grind their motors
one after the other
and roll their yellow machines downhill
until they broke away like pollen.
Once I heard an owl
through a tunnel from the moon,
imagined it huge
in its eyes, floating down
from the woods toward the lake.
All things moved down,
the life of trees clawed
at the hill, roots rolled
downhill in rivulets
beneath the lantern.
Behind my back, the cottage
slid toward the water
like an ice cube melting.
"See the eyes of the owl,"
my grandmother said, holding
the lantern to the trees
where something stirred, but
even the eyes had closed
into the awful dark.
My grandmother stood lean
and erect, her hair already loose
for the night and waved down
her back like the real woman
in a fairy tale. She said
my name, which was also her
name, said it out at the night
to make me appear, and hold.
This is how Alan rebuilt
the Thompson Brothers canoe:
He loosened the gunnels,
pulled the tacks
out, unscrewed the keel,
and the old canvas fell away.
He fixed a couple of broken
ribs, set the frame inside
a canvas hammock
pulled with block and tackle.
Inside that, he set
concrete blocks for weight,
and wiggled the frame
for a week until the canvas
loved its shape. He wrapped
and tacked the ends, coated
the canvas with sealer
hard enough to sand.
Then he screwed the gunnels
on, then the brass
at bow and stern, then
to keel. This is how much
love there is in the fingers,
in the shapes given to the eye
when the eye hardly knows
what it sees. The fingers
draw back the shape
of sliding through
the water, of evening
and morning, of coming
along the cusp
of light and dark
with no sound, moving
as if moving were a wish
The paddle goes down
like muscle, a faint slap.
The shape is the channel,
the ribbed basket,
the lightness of breaking
through, the suspension
between sky and floor,
a sigh, a stretch
of canvas like a drawn
bow, lean as fingers.
I teach my niece Elizabeth
to let down her oars,
then pull and lift with mine.
Our wake smooths
like a tail. Elizabeth says
we are a dragonfly,
double-oared. I think
we are an old woman,
our low whaler spreading
the reeds with wide hips,
Elizabeth talks nonsense
about Indians from Moscow
who spray their hair
with Raid. She imagines
molecules, red against
green, jostling the lake
like Jell-O. Sure.
And there were wildcats once
across the road, eating
the Knowles's chickens
and eating the loser of
would be thrown to
the night by the boys.
lofting and sinking, we make
these exultations of oars.
We're always close to flying.
We always plan to fly.
The slightest drip of a paddle
is too much. Let the canoe slide
by itself into the rushes and lily pads.
Lean far over the bow, your arm
a dead stick, drifting its shadow
through the water.
a turtle from behind, snatch it
from the log, a hard bulge
Snapper, you grab between
your careful fingers, arched
across the shell, back from
their craning dinosaur necks,
their mute bird beaks.
When you miss, you hear
the soft blip. Bubbles trail off
in deep, iridescent angles.
You don't catch them
for any reason. They scratch around
the canoe's wet bottom, leaving
stinking pools, and you bring them
two miles home. For days they wallow
and scrape their brown helmets
in the aluminum tub by the dock.
You add mussel shells and a Petoskey
stone for company. You feed them
worms, grubs, and a granddaddy longlegs.
You get used to hearing them.
When you go to swim, or sit
at the end of the dock feeding
the clamoring swans at sunset,
you start believing that skidding
and shucking against the tub
is their real voice.
But when you let them go,
they ease down the rocks and slide
unruffled and heavy as fishing lead
under the alien weeds
in righteous silence.
Fishing with Blood
They have waited for us in the country,
keeping the catfish fed,
bushhogging the pond banks clear.
We must pull up a chair on the long porch
while they hold down Sunday afternoon,
circling their voices on episodes.
Then we can take the cane poles
from against the chimney
to find what is left of luck.
Small bream toy with the ball of blood
on the hook, so when the big cat
strikes, it is more than I am
ready for, driving my line down.
The great ache of the pole quivers
toward heaven, before the line snaps.
For hours we watch the cork bob
and dive, raising clues.
We wade to our necks for it.
We cast a flounder rig, its hooks
vicious in the pond. It claws the cork,
thrashes fourteen pounds of catfish
against the bank. The line snaps again.
We take the gift of our fish tale
in the pink evening up to the porch.
They draw it to them like a prodigal son,
full of flaws, but redeemable.
They go to work on it.
The oystermen of Apalachee Bay stand
in their small boats. They spread their tongs
down from the boats, biting down bubbles.
The oystermen do blind men's work, rocked
in the visible cup of land. From the shallow
deep they dredge the green-black rocks,
scatter them over the trays, throw out
the halves and sand-filled wastes.
The oystermen cheerfully curse and rake
again under their shaken reflections.
In the keeper bins, the knotted clusters
clamp their wet mouths shut.
Up the docks, five women stand all day
at their five stalls under the windows,
shouting over the whistling saws that grind
open the oysters of Apalachee Bay.
The women's surgical fingers flick brine
and gather muscle. Through the glass,
the women watch their men in the boats
come nosing in, shuffling the water's sky.
Below the legs of the women, five chutes
open to the bay, heaping shells back,
greenish, bleached, translucent, out
of their sight. The men rumbling up
from the docks with their wheelbarrows
eye the size of the heaps for a sure thing
against the vague roll of the sea.
At the windows, the women's eyes are sharp
for quality, measuring gift and giver, the slits
of their eyes more telling than their mouths.
The Scholar's Cat
I've never seen anyone take to a cat
the way you have. Three stillborn litters
she's had, and you keep hoping she'll give over
one fuzzy live one, one mewing paddypaw.
For such a growler, you are easy to this
fragile cat, who sits in the street,
mindless, who goes out and struts back
two days later, black tail puffed
from some night vision, or some Tom.
She shadows under the sofa, tail twitching,
scratches on the bedroom door at eight,
begs expensive food, whines and slithers
in constant heat. You stumble through
your days, insomniac, shoving at your own
bounds, and there she is, curled
and purring. Her spring fur flies
away like dandelion shafts. Your spring
hair grows long, curls out from your ears.
You don't shave for days. Huge raccoon circles
spread under your eyes. You read
yourself vague. But at three, when you've
long ago kissed me and every wriggling,
talking thing asleep, out of the night sky,
Zang! That cat hits the screen like a bat,
splayed, claws into every nerve. You lumber
to the door and let her in respectfully.
She curls in your lamplight. She is, for you,
the simple purr of nature's simple engine.
She sleeps when her eyes shut, she eats
when her stomach fusses, she makes love
when some blind itch shoves her, startled,
out the door. If her skinny self
concocted reproductions, the whole
sweet song would circle back around
and leave you pleased as punch
that nature knows so blooming much.
Saving a Life
You keep your illness, examining
its vague and shifty facets
like a jeweler as we take our daily walk.
By Thanksgiving, clouds and drizzle set in
and someone wants to die
on the railroad tracks.
Innocently, we circle the station
into revolving lights that wheel up
one after the other, official vehicles,
raising a static of news.
The police are not going to let anybody die.
They are fingers of a hand across
all tracks, their voices surgically calm
in the night. The man is either drunk or drunk
with misery, throwing his reasons against them:
his grandfather dead, his little cousin
dead, his wife fucking some other man,
hey man, he yells down the dark,
there's nobody left.
Reasons enough, the cops should say,
nodding their heads. What the train can do
to him is hardly anything, we think.
Go ahead, we don't blame you, we want
to yell. We think he might take his grief
in his arms like a rock, then,
and roll away just in time, weak-kneed,
but owning the trouble himself.
Safer, they talk him to submission,
his wife arriving barefoot in the cold.
They lead him to the cars like a prisoner,
dividing his suffering among them
until each piece seems like nothing,
until he is too poor to argue.
He Says How It Was
Jaycee Park is where Wayman Fuller hid
in the bushes to waylay the colored who ducked
through at night on their way home
to the Quarters. (That was 1958 in Jackson,
Mississippi, language like a coin worn
faceless.) Across Bailie Avenue
is Virgil Street. It humps up, held then
at the top by four white houses, square
as books, with attached garages, hung
with wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers
on pegs. But from there the lean
began to roll and pitch, down
to the far end of Virgil Street. Beyond that
was only City Creek, the wide sewer
where the Baptist Church quit.
Five houses up on our side lived Lucky Cade,
pale as ashes. I loved him like a brother,
but he sold his bones to queers,
slow cruising, quiet, from Bailie Avenue.
His mother had black shoe polish hair
and an old man. And this is true:
They spooned poison in the oatmeal,
fed it to his grandbabies. She got off,
but he was electrocuted.
Daddy went to watch. You could do that
then. I remember he came home,
set his teeth on the edge of the sink,
and threw up. Mrs. Cade's next man Snooky
stacked boxes at Liberty Grocery Mart.
Snooky had a hand wrapped
with a white towel, soaked with sweat
and ringed in salt. They went dancing
Saturday nights, in spite of that hand.
The house next to the creek
belonged to Mr. Thigpen, before he died.
That's where the oak tree was,
with the wisteria, a mother of a tree,
dark, dripping with vines,
lacing black over the dirt yard.
In the spring, purple swelled
like a bruise, awesome. In back,
Mr. Thigpen had thirty-five fig trees
which he paid me to pick. Early,
just before the sun, my gloved hands
held the finest bulbs, just ripe
and sharp, from the birds
that sailed and pecked at first light.
I hired me six colored at half-price
plus a sack of figs we set outside
the fence, and I kept the difference.
Everybody was happy, except
Mr. Thigpen, when he saw those
chocolate boys in his trees
among the fruit, rescuing it
from blacker fate.
When he died, the Sullivans moved in.
(That wisteria crashed blooms
against the porch, spring
after spring.) Saturdays, his momma
made me and Robert Earl Sullivan
shell peas in the front room. One day
his daddy barged in, glued the hungry
shine of his drunk eyes
on Robert Earl, and raked his paw
down a cheek. Robert Earl pumped
a fist into his teeth. The cracks
between filled with red.
My breath dropped below the shells
of peas. The sofa leg shoved
through the floor, the shotgun
went off through the roof.
When the cops came, Mr. Sullivan
asked them in for ice tea.
Corn bread, peas, and tea,
that's all they ever ate.
Grandma Sullivan had a boyfriend.
When he went away, there was a string
of them after that. It was glorious
when she came to stay. She would get drunk
and play the piano, and sing hymns.
Robert Earl and Tommy Dale and me,
fixed for a dance in our polished white shoes
and white shirts, had to stand
lined up for her to admire
at the piano. Fine young bucks,
she would say. When we came home
at three, she would still
be singing, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray."
By then, the five-year-old was drunk,
too, on beer tea.
All of us had gardens. In the spring,
the only mule left in town brought heaps of manure
from somewhere, and the smell was rich
and thick, of things packed down, cooking
the soil, pulling onions, tomatoes,
squash, corn, and beans out of the dark.
Excerpted from The Woods Are On Fire by Fleda Brown. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction by Ted Kooser,
I. from Fishing with Blood | 1988,
II. from Do Not Peel the Birches | 1993,
III. from Breathing In, Breathing Out | 2002,
IV. from The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives | 2004,
V. from Reunion | 2007,
VI. from Loon Cry: Selected and New Michigan Poems | 2010,
VII. from No Need of Sympathy | 2013,
VIII. New Poems,