New Welsh Review
How to Carry Fire
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Christina Thatcher’s How to Carry Fire recognises the rich potential of symbolising fire, and skilfully uses it to explore trauma in her second collection of poems. This powerful anthology opens with one of the poet’s most significant experiences of the element in ‘Insurance Report’. Recollecting a house fire, a child’s viewpoint focuses directly on the poet’s feelings of nostalgia as she lists
the stained-glass unicorn
that Sioux tribe necklace
our grandfather’s final brick
These items are priceless to the poet, holding as they do stories of ancestry experience, identity and heritage. It is worth noting the poet’s attachment to her American heritage in the reference to the ‘Sioux tribe necklace’, as it supports her exploration of identity, especially surrounding place, as later in the anthology Christina Thatcher’s touches on her move from America to Wales. The poem, ‘Insurance Report’ continues to recognise the significance of identity:
We cried out for these totems:
Who are we without them? Who are we?
Only the inspectors answered back:
But what were they worth?
Understandably for the poet these possessions hold a sentimental value of much more significance than their materiality and financial value. These ‘totems’ are irreplaceable.
This traumatic experience, of a family made homeless by a domestic fire, comes to shape much of the collection. Thatcher uses fire as a symbol for two opposing aspects of life: destruction and revival. One such example of hurt is the horrifying image of domestic abuse that is depicted at the fireside, traditionally associated with safety and groundedness:
Bring these to a furnace at the front, stoke
With the poker, your father pressed into
Your mother’s neck.
It is evident how much fire has shaped Christina Thatcher’s life, but she is keen to remodel this motif. The poet continues to explore how losing everything in the house fire allowed her and her mother to seek a new life. Seeking to transform the trauma, she turns a traditionally destructive symbol into one of hope:
Stay wary now. You must never let the light
go out. Keep it lit until you learn to glow.
The collection continues to deal with a range of trauma, including, a brother’s drug addiction. Christina Thatcher remains unflinching in her narrative of suffering, navigating ways in which hope can be found. Several poems explore the dynamics and impact of addiction on the person affected and their family. One of the most poignant poems portraying the complexities of addiction is ‘Detox Passage’. Here, the poet bravely explores the obstacles that her brother faced when dealing with his addiction, exploring the idea of temptation and the salvation of religion:
You listen and nod: throw out every spoon in the house.
You tell the pastor you can do it. You believe
You can do it. God is with you, my son.
Christina Thatcher expresses great hope for her brother’s recovery, a belief that was not to be vindicated:
…but every time you close
your eyes to see
that silver curve and linger.
The poems in How to Carry Fire sees Christina Thatcher struggle with the inability to ‘rescue’ her drug-dependent brother; she appears to feel responsible for and complicit in his addiction. These feelings stem from the very start of the collection. In the poem ‘Sentry’ the idea of responsibility appears as Christina Thatcher explains:
I was ready: It’s your job[,] house canary.
Just watch the door and call
If we need to run.
Canaries were historically taken in cages down mine shafts to warn of dangerous gases in the atmosphere. In this comparison, Christina Thatcher as a young child was burdened with the responsibility of her family’s safety; a role which she continued to strive towards into her adult life.
Vulnerability, most especially in childhood, is consistently explored in How to Carry Fire. In the poem ‘An Improper Kindness’, Christina Thatcher requests that her brother
Leave rehab. Come sit on [her] knee
like [he] did when [he] were [her]
much littler brother.
Alongside the central motif of fire, Christina Thatcher skilfully manipulates the symbolism of its antagonist: water. One might expect, in its opposition to fire, that water might be explored with a singular interpretation, taking on the polar position to fire’s death-rebirth dynamic. For the poet, however, this is not the case: she recognises that water may also hold myriad interpretations. Water can be representative of danger, seem to be agent of freedom or a route to freedom. The poem ‘Hold’ dreams of
the metal, [her] lungs filling up
with saltwater, tiny fish
mouthing in panic.
In this way, Christina Thatcher effectively uses water as a metaphor for her internal struggles and anxiety, feelings which she elaborates in depicting her friends’ experience of divorce:
We know we cannot save
sturdy ships from rushing waters.
On the other hand, water is also expressed as a place of freedom. In the poem, ‘Learning to Escape’, it seems to provide a place of healing after the speaker is stung by a jellyfish: ‘[I] ran as fast as I could towards the sea’. The element also provides freedom from the trauma of her childhood in the poem, ‘What the Newspapers Left Out’, Christina Thatcher looks across the Atlantic from America in search of hope:
and that final call for me
From across the ocean.
This is a pivotal moment, as within the second half, the poet moves from America to Wales, allowing the poet to heal and revive her life. The collection has a successful circularity in terms of the metaphor of fire which reappears in the collection’s final line, ‘We live long and never burn.’ Overall, this is an accomplished collection of poetry that navigates trauma and recovery courageously.
Luanne Thornton is one of this season’s reviewers-in-residence in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts & Humanities.