Setting the Fires
In Setting the Fires by Darlene Pagán, fire is a literal combustion and a hunger that claims both the natural world and the human heart. Whether in the passion between lovers, the wonder of childhood, the threat of violence, or in the seeds of inspiration, fire is an element of loss and destruction necessary for renewal and cleansing.
Cover design: Beth Ford
Publication date: October 1, 2015
Darlene Pagán is the author of a chapbook of poems Blue Ghosts (Finishing Line Press 2011). Her poems and essays have appeared in many journals, including Field Magazine, Calyx, Hiram Poetry Review, and Literal Latté, and earned national awards and nominations for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She teaches at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Her web site is www.DarlenePagan.com.
Praise for Setting the Fires
“Oh, Darlene Pagán, where have you been all my reading life with your hard-hitting poems, your luminous words, your insights and mesmerizing cadences, your stories, your quirky visions, your lines so sharp and well-honed they glint like a knife edge as they cut through to the heart, your singular strategies with language, metaphor, with silences and syntax, your way of looking at the world? Here are poems I’ve been hungering to read, the poet I’ve been waiting to discover.”
— Julia Alvarez
“A lively sensibility is at work and play in Setting the Fires. Irreverent and fully American, these poems are crackling with irrepressible humor and an eye for the quirky detail. I also admire their clear language and scope of subject matter, from childhood to adulthood, from the personal to the political, they leave a record of a self wide awake to the world.”
— Dorianne Laux
Excerpts from Setting the Fires
HOW IT ALL STARTED
By the end of the trip, she had never been
more sorry, a word he discarded like something
she’d made at summer camp—a cross between
an ashtray and a turtle. Sorry she forgot
the lantern, the towels, the hot dog buns,
the matches. Hadn’t they found
a lighter? Sorry she could not fry an egg
over an open flame and not leave it all sticking
to the pan. Sorry she launched him into the river
trying to help him steady the canoe. Sorry he left it
to her to put out the fire their last morning—the one
thing, he had said, she ought to be able to get
right. Sorries in hand, she kicked dirt
on the flames, burying them deep,
then watched as the heart expanded
and pulsed back to life. Again and again,
she buried the stubborn coals, watched them
gasp for air and reignite. He slammed a car door
as an ember opened its smoking eye and trained it
on her like a dare. The ember woke another
and another as she turned to walk away.
THINGS I’VE TAKEN A MATCH TO
The ballerina in her jewelry box with a heart painted on the top. Picture frames and peach pits. Peppercorns and cracker jacks. The edges of a tractor tire. The rope holding the tire up in a tree in a neighbor kid’s yard, the one who called my father a spic. A Barbie doll’s leg. A snake husk. A teddy bear’s green eye. A stink bug. Tinsel. A Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve. A letter telling a man I was leaving him. A bale of straw. Hair spray. The Blue Frog Bar and Grill in River Town, Chicago, where I sang karaoke two weeks after my mother died. My body. Paper stuffed in a bottle of sugar cane schnapps. A destination. The barn windows the bottle burst through. The mown fields where the flames crawled. The house the flames reached. A map. The tent I was meant to sleep in. A rumor. A lie. A letter telling a man I was coming home. The good girl pulling the night up to her chin for cover, again and again and again.
ONCE UPON A TIME
I pitched a tent in a yard in Seville
beside a one-eyed goat. A lemon curtain
fluttered in the window, solid and brilliant
enough to hold the whole crumbling
house up. The sky cast a pearly glow
on the grass. When I stepped inside,
my lover sat at an antique lathe working
blocks of wood into chess pieces. A horse,
a knight, one pawn after another. Where
are the children? I asked. I unmade them
for you, he said, black curls writhing along
his cheek as his foot tapped the pedal, thumbs
turning the wood in swift circles. But not to worry,
he winked, we can always make them back. Clouds
ran between us. His hair grayed into smoke.
His knuckles swelled and knotted, the body
he once wore flew into the distance like
a tattered shirt as the tent collapsed. Feet
on the grass, my body shed the girl, grew
thick and heavy as if I’d come ashore after
a long swim. From inside, he pulled back
the curtain and waved me in for cold soup
and day old bread. I hadn’t felt hunger
in years and didn’t want to come inside
but somewhere on the wind I heard
the children’s voices gathering like birds.
Cicadas swam up from Catalpa roots
and hummed themselves to life. The tent
became a sheet in my hand. As soon as
I folded it, the grandchildren raced up,
our children smiling behind them.
My lover shuffled out to greet them.
In my pocket, I still held the Queen.
In celebration of the publication of Setting the Fires, Airlie Press has commissioned a limited-edition letterpress broadside of one of Darlene Pagán’s poems. Signed and numbered by the author.