Kwame Dawes' "Fire"

Some writers are like fountains. Language courses from them with a seemingly unstoppable force. Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to mind, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates. These writers fill pages and pages of journals, speak poems over their breakfast cereal, compose novels while they’re idling in a traffic jam or waiting for the doctor. Not all writers are like this, mind you. Some of us are more like occasional pools that fill when it rains and then dry up until the next storm. We struggle to get the right words out, agonize over each sentence, revise until we can’t see straight.

But Kwame Dawes strikes me as more of a fountain. He’s published so many books that he says he “doesn’t really keep track,” but the numbers are somewhere in the ballpark of 20 books of poetry, 2 novels, one collection of short stories, and 4 books of nonfiction. He’s also edited numerous anthologies and written many, many, many articles, essays, uncollected poems, plays, and other miscellanea. He has accumulated an impressive register of awards, including a Pushcart Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Guggenheim. Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, he now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he edits the literary journal Prairie Schooner and serves as Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

His poem, “Fire,” echoes with music, history, and a deep sense of both power and tragic foreboding. “Fire” appears in his collection Duppy Conqueror, published by Copper Canyon Press.

He is the man with the ax with its white edge.
He was born to a time of fire.
He took a pickax and walked to the rail
track and asked for work; and he stood
by the sparks and forging fire, standing
there as if the heat were food, pure food.
He is the forger of plans and the man
who has vowed to be a friend
of fire, vowed to teach all flame
the democracy of heat. He was
born to a time of fire, a man
born to turn broken engines
into piston and grease, a man who sees
the world as a machine; everything
will atrophy, all fires must die,
but while the bellows blow. Here is
an ordinary man, big hands, big
dreams, moving through the earth.
A stranger always, a sojourner.
Trains thunder through the green
world, a farm stretches away
from him; to cross from one end
of the country to the other is
the journey from fence to fence,
the grand expanse of someone else’s
land that he knows like it is his.
Above, the crackle of a low-flying
plane, and in the river, the clunking
of a steamboat—this is progress,
this is the machine, and a black
man stands on the edge of the monstrosity
of iron and knows he must
be a forge where all heat will channel
energy. Where a body can move,
break ground, fill hands, where
a man can be at the top, commanding
the elements; these are the days
of fire, the days of charred bodies
dangling from trees, the days
of burned-out towns, negroes running
to find their way in the belly
of cities; these are the days
when fire must meet fire.
He was born to a time of fire,
let him burn, baby, let him burn.