Shapes Inside a Common Fire

representation of Aristotle
Most likely the core circumstances here are nothing new, are easy to identify with, and especially so if you, too, are a writer. Like me, you've long had the tendency to respond to tragedy or shocking news this way: some expression of your emotional reaction through art. Catharsis sometimes, sure. Process, too.

The first time I ever really responded to tragedy through poetry was in early college. A friend of mine, a tall blonde girl from the Upper Midwest who I'd secretly had a crush on since she enrolled in our citified California school, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. She was back in Michigan then,  and was walking through the cold morning to her college campus. Like that -- -- she was dead.

This happened a few days before Christmas. I was back in the Bay Area then. For three days, I wrote a poem. Wrote trying to understand how she could be gone, about that empty space, trying to find an image or a metaphor (was it a pear tree? a field we'd walked through once?) that could correspond to her absence. Certainly the poem was an elegy, though I didn't it know it then, and wouldn't become aware of the elegiac tradition for years. I've since lost track of the poem, though I like to think it's floating around in the world somewhere. I sealed the poem in an envelope and gave it to her brother at the wake.

At some point, though, I feel like something changed in my approach. This may be a natural shift that comes with education in the craft, or may come when one is more aware of one's own methods for writing: gathering materials for the poems, "keeping track," seeking out connections and correspondance rather than passively waiting for whatever-it-is to add up. The change, though, is this: instead of reacting to tragedy how I used to, I now tend to think (and almost always think this first!), "There's a poem in there somewhere," or "Hmmm...I can use this."

Am I wrong to feel that this is callous? Am I wrong to use the world and experience in this way? My heart doesn't feel exploitative, but I worry. Maybe it's my Protestant guilt. Maybe it's my obsession with poetry and the ethics of representation. Certainly, though, I'm not the only one, right?

When I was in Kansas during the summer and working on the manuscript, I read Martha C. Nussbaum's book Poetic Justice: Literary Imagination and Public Life. One phrase that comes to mind is “compassionate imagination”: the idea that society and culture refuse empathy, and have institutionalized such refusal. As a consequence, those that are exploited or drowned-out by the culture are devalued, if not purged, from the public sphere’s imagination.

Now, I don’t have my notes in front of me, so if I’m wrong here, misremembering or misapplying Nussbaum’s argument, please let me know. But I think the role of the compassionate imagination, then, is to record or even make the record. To put ourselves next to the awfulness of the world and put all the piss and shit on view. To show one thing in the institutional sphere as another. I don’t means to say we should show them as being the same, but to see everything as shapes inside a common fire.

Here’s my situation and my question:

Over the weekend, I came across a news report saying that a guy I grew up with, someone I went with to elementary school and junior high and saw around town periodically during high school, was arrested for making and attempting to set off several pipe bombs in the city where we grew up.
Tim Wilson -- my childhood friend
I didn’t realize it was him at first. I scrolled through the story online, and the photo of the man they arrested looked like any other criminal. How terrible. To say, “any other criminal.” How uncompassionate.

And now my question: is this uncompassionate saying/thinking “any other criminal” worse than, upon finally recognizing the man in the photo as my friend, almost immediately thinking, “There’s a poem in here somewhere”?

Does anyone else struggle with this?

Recently and over a decade later, my friend who died so suddenly made another appearance in a poem, though this time the "use" of her in the poem was drastically different. In this poem, she was not so much the subject matter of the poem as much as the story surrounding her death was used to create a scaffolding upon which to build a larger piece, to drive a narrative, to make connections between other things. Earlier I wrote the phrase, "to see everything as shapes inside a common fire." Interesting, then, that this poem in which my associations of her appear is largely connected to the other elements in the poem through images of fire and ash. But I digress...and must get ready for another departmental meeting.

Here's some of an Amichai poem that I read over and over again after my friend died. I originally encountered it in The New Republic, actually right before I got word she'd died. This would be, let's see, December 1999. Piecing the inner-workings of that out would be an entire essay in itself.

I don't have the full poem written down, and I don't have a collection of Amichai that has this poem, so I can't be sure I've got the poem right at all. What I am certain of is that this poem significantly influenced my writing, and my drafting of that primordial elegy.

from And Who Will Remember the Rememberers?


What is the correct way to stand at a memorial ceremony?
Erect of stooped, pulled taut as a tent or in the slumped posture
of mourning, head bowed like the guilty or held high
in a collective protest against death,
eyes gaping frozen like the eyes of the dead
or shut tight, to see stars inside?
And what is the best time for remembering? At noon
when shadows are hidden beneath our feet, or at twilight
when shadows lengthen like longings
that have no beginnings like God?

Yehuda Amichai
from The New Republic, 12/20/1999