Fire In the Pasture: twenty-first century Mormon poems
Harlow S. Clark
Peculiar Pages, 2011
Price: $21.99, Kindle: $4.99
Were There Not Three in the Fire?
Reviewed for the Association for Mormon Letters by Harlow Clark
Back during my brief teaching career, a fellow who taught Accounting
used to come to the English Department's reading nights. He told me my
writing made Mormon culture accessible to a non-Mormon like him, and one
day he said he would like to write a book, a dialogue called "God Speaks
to an Economist." God tells the economist that while economics is based
on the theory of scarcity and the competition for scarce resources,
God's economy is based on abundance. "All that my Father hath is yours,"
and that promise is available to all. "Now that's abundance!" he said.
Susan Howe uses that same word, abundance, in her foreword to the new
anthology, Fire in the Pasture, a word that occurred to her over and
over as she read the poems--over and over perhaps, and the poems are
worth reading and rereading, for the abundance of joy, of technique, of
form and forms, for the exuberance of a poem like Aaron Guile's "Sister
Mary-Kate O'Donnell," which suggests the darkness of abundance too great
to contain. The bulk of the poem is an energetic list of things to be
cleaned out of a woman's house, social worker standing by:
the forty-seven television sets;
top-loading VCRs; eight betamax
recorders; magazines; the coupons; ads;
the Valentines she sent to thirty-three
orange and marmaladish cats who cannot
escape because they need to practice songs
But the energy is unsustainable, and the social worker is standing by
the trip away
uptown to germ-o-phobes and sanitized
and linoluminized, catless, soulless rooms.
The book's abundance and energy does not tend toward that end, however,
though the energy is often the energy of death. I once ran into Sharlee
Mullins Glenn and Valerie Holladay at the public library and we got to
talking about our mothers. I think I asked Valerie about an essay she
had written about her mother. Valerie said her mother had died recently.
Sharlee's too. Mine was approaching 90 (which has been receding 2 years)
and unable to live alone, so a sister would take care of her during the
week and the other three of us in the area would share her care on the
Cherish the opportunity to parent your parent, they told me. Bela
Petsco, who said the upside of his father's Alzheimers had been that he
was always meeting new people, told me the same thing. "Don't call me
from your mother's. Even if she's just lying on the couch sleeping,
enjoy just being there with her. It will mean so much to you when she's
I thought of that chat at the library when I saw Valerie's obituary last
summer (http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=2670). I thought of it again
when I got to the Gs in this book, and read Sharlee's "Somewhere."
Do not rage, mother
(leave the raging to the poet
and his father, now both long-dead
despite the raging)
Go gently. Go.
The poem evokes one of the salient features of modern and contemporary
literature, its deeply personal character, which demands a personal
response, and this poem is a personal response to a personal expression
of grief, and not only a response, but a mirror image, the complementary
opposite of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
Lionel Trilling explored his worry about those personal demands in his
essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," which begins with an
apology for relating "the bare bones" of his experience offering the
first modern lit class at Columbia, where he had to confront the risk of
such demands to the teacher's privacy, and the student's and reader's.
I once had an essay rejected with the comment, "If it's possible for a
personal essay to be too personal this one is." But I wasn't trying to
be personal. I was simply telling the story, in the same way the 80
poets in this book tell stories, often very personal.
Matthew James Babcock's "Inch" is an intriguing story about family life
and journeys and new beginnings, and also a technical feat, where the
stanza's last line, or a variation on it, provides the first line of the
next 14-line stanza, and the 15th stanza collects those 14 lines.
A book of this quality deserves a longer review, but I'll have to save
that until I finish, maybe write a series highlighting a phrase or line
from each poet, or a lovely piece of synchronicity, such as Neil
Aitken's coming first in the alphabet, so the book with a fiery title
can open with a poem like "Burials," about Neil's father scattering his
And finally, just a few words about the abundance of fire. Tyler
Chadwick says in his preface that he sees the title as extending the
image in Eugene England and Dennis Clark's Harvest: Contemporary Mormon
Poems: "But farmers sometimes burn their fields post-harvest in
preparation for another planting" (xiv).
But fire is a more abundant image than preparation only, with one
passage of scripture saying "the Lord was not in the fire," (I King
19:12) and another saying, "Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the
midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is
like the Son of God." (Daniel 3:24-25)
The ambiguity, doubleness, abundance extends to the cover painting,
which has what looks like an upside down drawing of the Community of
Christ temple in the midst of the fire, but when you turn the painting
upside down the line drawing looks like the Nauvoo temple, seen at a
slight tilt, as someone coming up a hill might see building on the
In "The Shape of the Fire" Theodore Roethke celebrated "The shapes a
bright container can contain," and this book is a particularly bright
container, the kind where you may throw one poem into the fire and when
you look to see the shape in the fire you find two or three there.