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The Poet's Notebook [by Andrew McCarron]

REVIEW OF KYTHE HELLER’S FIREBIRD

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Last August, I read Kythe Heller’s new book-length poem, Firebird (Arrowsmith Press, 2020), in a single sitting. Inspired by Sufi mysticism and by traumatic and kairotic events from her own life, the poem performs a theology of transformation in which purgative fires of struggle and pain become a path to awaken on. Pain in the poem isn’t something to be forgotten once things get better, or an illness to be narcotized, nor is it an occasion for poeticized identity narcissism. Pain becomes a site of grace, a pyre in which holy flames burn silence into song, madness into mysticism, body into spirit, and self into community.

The poem began as a series of notebook jottings. Kythe explained her process in an email:

I think of notebooks expansively, not only as a conventional and necessary literary practice on the page but also as an initiatory practice -- translating dreams and actual events and insights, into scraps of images, films, sounds, song, ritual, shared dreams or poems with which people can experiment and live new realities together. Over the course of several years of intensive spiritual practice, while writing Firebird, I also started a collective of artists and creatives, first in NYC and then in Cambridge, MA, eventually called VISION LAB, and some of the original material for Firebird came out of these living experimental notebooks. I was writing and then we also started to act out these dreams together, which led to more writing. The work became a book and then a set of fluid performance ritual pieces, living poems, performance scores or inhabited, experimental poems, like a living notebook of new forms.

As the title suggests, the poem’s element is fire, both in its destructive and transformative capacities. The flames surround, engulf, and transform a feminine subject who takes on several related identities: a teenage runaway, a burning girl, a feral child living in society’s margins, and a mystic-poet. The storylines of these individuals come in and out of focus -- at times existing as parallel novels in miniature and other times merging into the fold of a single story. The 64-page poem, which has an experimental quality due to frequent shifts between verse and prose, expressive uses of punctuation, ambulatory perspectives, and incantatory rhythms, is divided into five interlocking sections, with each section building on the resonances of the sections that precede it: “The Burning Girl”; “Mattress Under The Overpass”; “The Spirit Neither Sorts Nor Separates”; “Runaway”; “That Heart.” Whether the mysterious subjects who breathe, burn, and “become” across the five sections are different people, the same person, the poet herself, or even the reader remains unclear at first. The shifting pronouns (I, she, you) create a shared experience of brokenness and becoming familiar to seekers who walk down the spiritual path. 

The poem invites the reader into its life, mining experience for shared magma: “The body of eyes everywhere a joyful sobbing: everywhere a crackling wash of cries where the glowing coals emerge / just at the center of the fluff of ash and blackened fabric--” Like Eliot’s QuartetsFirebird doesn’t present “the lifetime of one man only.” I felt this to be true when I first read the poem last summer and even more so when I reread it this past week. Like her mentor and friend Fanny Howe, Kythe’s poetry performs mystical theology in a language of experimental poetics that invites the reader in. Both writers seek to say something barely communicable but commonly experienced by spiritually oriented people, which, according to Paul Tillich, is potentially everyone. 

A burning girl haunts the poem, setting its pages ablaze. She sits at the center of the work in a circle of flames. At first, the girl’s obsession with fire is emblematic of a self-destructive impulse, a promethean urge destructively rendered: “But how could I open the door / while she stood there burning?” the poet asks. The burning girl, a possible Jungian shadow, shows up at her door demanding entry. “I stood at the door of my life / but she was already there,” reads the opening couplet. “Her skin swollen. / And in her eyes / pain like a flower opening its body forever.” By the poem’s second page, it becomes clear that the poet and burning girl are the same person. Like the Gerasene Demoniac described in the gospels, the poet seems to be recalling a time when her self-unity was fragmented by the trauma of abuse, neglect, and social estrangement. Fire becomes an object of seduction for the girl. It calls to her like flames call to a pyromaniac. 

The burning girl is depicted at first as problematic, uncontainable, dangerous. Who’s more feared than a fire-obsessed, self-harming woman with wild hair living in the woods on the outskirts of town? The poem touches on this in an interpolative moment: “There were fire marshals signaling. This is illegal, they said. With enormous effort, I prevented myself thinking the thing inside the match that wanted out. And then, because I had to, because the fire could not be prevented, I wrote this.” As Jungians know, the key to our evolutionary growth as people can often be found in the bewildering symbols and plotlines that populate our fantasies and nightmares. Everything is meaningful.  

Fire becomes a meaningful site for transformation through the poem. The firebird is the phoenix, the immortal bird from Greek mythology that cyclically regenerates from the ashes of the fires that consume it. The subject of the poem is transformed through a process of negation that, like death by fire, is brutal and unspeakable in its infernal erasures. Birth names are burned away (“...She wanted meaning. / And her given name sounded fake, like a porn star”), previous selves and their aspirations are burned away (“to burn away what she was, what she meant / to become--”), suffering and desire are burned away (“Look inside the mattress, the suffering / burns. The desire / to heal again through suffering burns”), possessions are left behind (“Leave all that is mine on the street again”), and the body and its sensations are immolated as well (“Joy or anguish, to be born in fire, in the elemental moment, to feel the flames coursing over my bones, caressing every cell with light / until at last the fire bent down low over / the rib cage, / and reaching, reached in”). What remains is the beating heart of who we are at the level of shared spirit (“Never knowing the difference / between your own heart pumping 1,640 beats a minute / and the heart of the world into which you fly / What trust”). The turbulence and pain of the past aren’t disavowed. They become a path that culminates in compassion and moral clarity.   

Like many poetic works that engage the immaterial world, the experience of Firebird doesn’t easily lend itself to the prodding and summations of literary criticism. The poem performs its purpose in its own apophatic terms when read or performed. Perhaps this is why it has been performed as a musical album in collaboration with the composer/musicians Andrew Stauffer and Nicholas Denton Protsack of Sounds Like Things, as well as four short video poems, in collaboration with talented video and movement artists Anya Yermakova, Grace Jackson, and Marizo Siller, among others.

When our society talks about positive change on an individual level, it’s often couched in material terms. We talk about changing our careers, our life partners, our scenery, our cognitive, affective & narrative patterns, and our brain chemistry. Firebird enacts a different sort of change, a change of spirit that renders everything we’ve lost, all our scars, all our shocked silences, and all the times we’ve been alone in the darkening wood – into a meaningful process. It’s a process through which we can find our hearts “melted into the form of liquid pearl.” Even if we remain exiled from the homes of our birth, there’s nothing in our lives that can’t help us find a final home in the capacities of our heart. The final line of Firebird asks, “In that heart, what point is there in dying or being born again?”  


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