Letters to a Burning World

Six Poems by Kevin Goodan

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Because the first condition of the universe is fire
Because fire is the emergence and culmination of a cycle
Because fire is a product of rise over run
Because fire itself is narrative
Because the correlation of breathing in the proximity of flame is part of the story
Because we purse our lips to intensity
Because of the angle of the body to ash
Because the Pulaski is the vehicle of the power
Because the power is gained in its arc
Because shins are rock-bruised and bloody
Because the legs do not flinch anymore at the tool’s deflection
Because adrenalin is a feast for the body, brain euphoric
Because fear is the instinct
Because the crown-fire is above you
Because fire can double back on an anchor point
Because the chinking of tools in rocks grows syncopated and scattered
Because our very breath is fuel to the fire
(Little bird, little bird, do not spirit away)
Because our labor is an orchestration
Because our weather girl is six foot three with a full beard and answers to Toad
Because Toad takes weather every half hour, then fifteen minutes, then is constantly
     Swinging the gauge: good Toad, bad Toad, fuck
Because the burnout operation from the river to the ridge is our symphony
(At once, two birds of flame rise outside the line)
Because the underside of crown-fire is fire
Because we smack-talk the flame-front to resist its trancing convections
Because it is there, always there: my urge to enter the fire



Sting of that fire elemental
Of the many-tongued flame-to-be
And of that blaze set always
Between you and me: the blue-rooted
Flame, the mother-of-pearl-flicker,
The radiant-glazed, gradient-whorled,
The updraft-wafted, drought-kilned,
The beetle-killed kindled, smoke-
Tendrilled, slope-addled, stop-haunted,
Spoor-mottled, budworm-brittled,
Fungus-fluttered, bole-blasted,
Lightning-licked, root-rot ringed,
Fire, fire, fir, the dry, dry air alone—
The ember-suckled, cold-cell nurtured,
The gust-granted, the buckbrush-muffled,
The beargrass-bejeweled, the kinnikinnik-
Strewn, the ladder-fueled, the tenuous-
Rooted, cambial-scorched, the drip-torched,
Saw-kerfed, shovel-scraped, all the singe-
Worthy duff, and you (ah!) my lord, STING.



When the holding-wood pops
And the snag sets back
Twisting the peewee wedge
Out of the back-cut, there is
That singular moment
Looking up the narrowing length
Of barkless trunk that the light
Shivers at the crown
And the body pauses
And the saw pauses
Before torquing from your hands
And even though the snag
Is spinning toward you
You watch the light coming down—
Bright ash, bright ash, flesh.



We give
Our lungs
To the fire,
Their frothy
Pink and
The hinge-work
Of our knees
What’s good
Of our backs
We give,
Disks in
The spine
To the nerves.
The sockets.
We give
Bruise, we
Give gash
Bleeds, bleeds—
From tool-blows,
Armpits raw
From sweat-rimed
Grating under
Line-gear straps,
Back of neck
Seared, glistered.
Give ankles
Skin we give
To ember,
To aramids,
To the long
Cancer has.
Ears given
To squelch,
Rotor wash,
A far voice
For water
For god
Who is
Out there
In the
Brittle woods.
Give lips
Double time
Double time,
From eyes,
Rancid nubs,
A beard,
Tobacco spit
In gloves
In ash
To the bone,
Lactic surge
In arms
In calves
As we pause
Swiping back
The grime-slicked hair
then bending
To our
Ash-dark art
Once more.



Morning finds us
A slight easterly breeze
Skurling up ash
From the far ridge
Laid bare last night
In a back-burn.
Sweat beads up,
Grit on forearms,
Tools, fresh-filed, flash
The purpled sun.
Upslope we tread
The trough of hot-line—
Buckbrush roots,
Pulaskied back to the
Overburden, glisten.
Wounds on our shins
Darken. We hike on
Past the char of deer
Beginning to reek—
Turkey buzzards swoop
Then veer. Beargrass
Twists its smolder,
The punky duff. Above
The thermal belt
We pause. Particulate
Layers lift from the draw
And the water we drink
Lifts from our pores,
A salty halo catching
The light. We tune
Radios to the spot-
Weather forecast,
The complex parameters
Of the County Line Fire.
We hike on, ears
Twitching for a whistle
That is a snag coming down
After Szabo took one
Yesterday, smashing
His shoulder to mush.



At Helispot Delta we huddle
In a reeky air of soot, char,
Flesh unwashed and waxy
In Nomex and line-gear
As we scan the mosaic
Of the dwindling fire:
False draw scathed,
Wet draw seared,
Islands of green
Below the thermal belt.
Some open the last MREs,
Hoard tiny Tabasco bottles.
Some sharpen tools,
Repack gear, calculate
The manifest, the weight
Of each sling-load. Some
Tune to chatter on the hand-held,
Squelch out codes:
Helibase, Helitack, Strike Team,
Cat 2 Crews, Con Crews,
Digger Squad, bucket drops,
Lead Plane, Dozer Boss—
So many names in the smoke
As the inversion sloughs
Toward us, we who torched
this Eden, and will again.




Kevin GoodanKevin Goodan was born in Montana and raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation where his stepfather and brothers are tribal members. Goodan earned his BA from the University of Montana and worked as a firefighter for ten years with the U.S. Forest Service before receiving his MFA from University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2004. He has taught at the University of Connecticut and has served as Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University. He currently lives in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire.

View “Let That Fire Catch Me Now”: Poems by Kevin Goodan + Photographs by Adam Ottavi appearing in Terrain.org.

Header image by OSORIOartist, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.