EXCERPT: The Woods Are On Fire

The following poems have been excerpted from The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems by Fleda Brown (March 2017).

The Gospel Truth

The Confederate soldiers came for the freed slaves.
They had not thought to escape but had been freed
by the Union army. They were being paid wages.
But the Confederate soldiers ripped them from their children,
cut off their hands, branded their faces, dragged them
in groups until they collapsed. Nothing that hadn’t been
done before, that isn’t done now— one hundred four
people killed this summer in Milwaukee, a hundred twenty
in New Orleans. “More dangerous to be caught without
your gun than to be caught with it,” says the police chief.
A ten- year- old child, a “cub of the Caliphate,” has beheaded
a Syrian offi cer. Twenty- fi ve child executioners stand
with their guns pointed at each bowed head in Palmyra.
Before Palmyra itself was rubble. I want to say all this
before I tell you the lake is smooth this morning,
with a faint sheen, the way it is in autumn. That I am not
able to go on with the horror. That it is all true. That poetry
is as awful as the rest, with its face directly in the passing
beauty, with its mourning, its helpless words. How long
it has stood, with its cocked gun, trying to save the world,
to wake it up to the dangers? Its heart has been breaking
for centuries, breaking and raging. It wants to tie you
to the altar, and if God didn’t utter the words of release,
it would shed your blood to prove how full of faith it is.
How sure, sure it is, of something yet to be revealed.


Getting Free

My long- dead ex- husband’s wife died this week.
That much I know. What else? She told
no one she was sick, didn’t go to the doctor,
fi nally collapsed more or less alone
into the Bermuda Triangle of her own wishes.
Why would someone want to disappear before she
disappears? I will never know this, either. Things
feel like my fault, my deliberate lack of attention.


We cast ourselves out of our lives,
there’s a crumbling at the edge of what we know,
a bit of satisfaction, as if we’d left shore with its
factories and smells, and climbed the mast.
Nothing in sight but horizon and fresh air.
We take in a breath, a breath made of elemental
parts of a thousand thousand souls we’ll never
get rid of, that will be reincarnated into innumerable
more life forms until the sun and earth die a cold
death a few billion years from now.


But that won’t be the end
for those atoms, even the atoms of those
we left with anguish and tears, even those we
turned around in the driveway for, to hear their
pleading to try again. Nearby supernova will shock
and stir the dusty remnants of the solar system
and new solar systems will form around it.
Some of the atoms will make up the bodies
of newborn life forms on the new planets.
Many of my own atoms may have been part of
alien organisms that lived on some long- agodestroyed
planet. I am sad for them,
the ones who live forever ignored in me,
and the ones who’d longed to get free.

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