ACTWrite / Fire / Poetry

Fire in the afternoon: a dispatch from the capital by John Stokes

In the morning the Streichholz by Sebastian Ritterpeople do the work of gods…

The sun does not rise.

Fires have been circling the city and Jervis Bay for days. Many people are remembering the last big one, the last full attack.  As are the dogs, who smell the fear, the smoke. They are howling now, no doubt hearing distant sirens.  I start a cold guilt sandwich and Local Radio  says: “Residents of Lockhart should leave now”.  I finish the sandwich; Local Radio  says “too late for residents of Lockhart to leave.  Execute your personal fire emergency plan”. Someone emails to say please write us something about writing about fires.

On Writing about fires

What can you say? There’s the long-day terror; the preparations; the belief and the disbelief.

The Prime Minister’s Counter-Disaster Task Force used to say of people in this build-up period of hot terror mixed with disbelief that: “Some will go, some will stay.  If they go late, they will take family, photographs, pets, these days perhaps laptops, in that order. Some people will freeze and must be moved by police” . In the poem “Preparations for the fire” (A River in the Dark, 2003), I had a man resolve to stay and fight. He makes very detailed preparations and hunkers down.  Late in the poem, the reader realises that the man is a Vietnam War veteran who has known the My Lai massacre.  When the napalm glow, the dark roaring come up at him , he cries out: Why is that wind howling like that old woman did back then ?  A curse. A day of reckoning must arrive.

And arrive it does. As in war, the enemy always bursts onto you sooner than you expect.  Wildfire is sudden, chaotic, merciless.  Wildfire is HOT.  On metal roofs, the announcement of its coming can take the form of the patter of embers, curiously like rain.  Then the roar of the warplanes. It’s too quick, the burning and suffocating, one can only write about such matters in retrospect.  If one lives .  In the poem “Fire in the afternoon”  (ed. 2013), the speaker says: “Welcome, friends, to the brotherhood of fear”.

After the passing, there is the anxiety, the hard pain of loss, so like elation, that you have just been in a battle with some sort of religious awe.  You may have lost everything, or family is dead, or you will rise again, or you have won against the odds.

Then the long, slow, descent.  The tales of heroism in chaos, I think, are the most moving.  You must let the people themselves talk. Unadorned. Their various gods, spirits, or natures may have deserted them, run away, but that particular worship “mateship” is brought out, shown like a talisman, and accepted even by those who think it is fiction.

The aftermath can make or break people.  There is a poem I have written based on the fires at Mt Macedon in Victoria, a fire which incidentally burnt out the fire emergency management school  built on an uncleared hill, which, like placing the flood mitigation coordination centre  in the middle of a town’s  floodplain (believe me, it does happen) is not to be recommended, where a man and a women are cleaning up after a terrifying fire through their garden.  The woman, in between coughing, has told the man that even in the extreme danger of the fire, it did not occur to her to love him.  And yet they survive.  They adapt.  They live.  The poem is called Raking the leaves. This is how it ends:

The thin smoke and the fading

catch him standing strangely,

his eyes closed, as if trying

to remember hearing the sharp cries

from a distance over the sugar-gum ridges,

sinking into the evening of an eye’s blink,

beginning to grow deaf quietly. 



John Stokes

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