Slow Fires

Beastly verses

FINUALA DOWLING is delighted by Slow Fires, Dan Wylie’s eminently readable collection of poems

BY FINUALA DOWLING

The paper on which most of the world’s knowledge is stored is silently being annihilated through acid decay. That was the warning of Slow Fires, an award-winning documentary, some 30 years ago. It was, as Nicholson Baker quipped, “the most successful bit of library propaganda ever created”.

Wholesale scanning by Google Books has allayed our fear of friable pages, only to add other anxieties, largely about copyright, but also about the future of hard copies, of bookshops and, indeed, of reading.

Poet Dan Wylie has used the title Slow Fires for his beautifully-made seventh collection of poetry: a slender, collectable and eminently readable volume printed on thick cream paper with a soft slip cover. Each poem is finely illustrated by one of Roxandra Dardagan Britz’s etchings. This is why we still need books.

Most of the poems are spoken in the voices of African fauna. The baboon, ostrich, leopard, hyena, warthog, elephant, rhino and pangolin all deliver reflections that are part political allegory and part animal activism – the kind of existential insight one might obtain if one lived the painful and necessarily observant life of a wild or domesticated beast.

Wylie’s tone is deceptively comforting; his surface message suggests that physical devastation and moral decay should not concern us too much because, after all, it was ever thus. The opening poem addresses the reader as “my love”, urging resignation in the face of the locust swarm:

Face it:
sun displaces moon; despair the crop.
This man wrecks what that man built;
the tyrant beheads what the nurse has saved.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, seems to be the proverbial wisdom in this poem, “Even a darkness which may be felt”, a title echoing the book of Exodus. The narrator is encouraging:

But, look, already the girls are running,
scooping them up in their buckets and hats
and heating the pans in the fires of dusk.

As one turns to each new poem, however, pessimism mounts. Successive animals offer dark aphorisms about our psyche and our times. It’s not the friability of these pages that should worry us, but merciless slaughter of which we are capable. As the Afrikander cow observes, riffing on Wilfred Owen:

The poet had it wrong:
it’s not them who die like cattle,
but we who perish like humans –
like the Bushmen and Tutsis, the kulaks, the Jews.

It’s a world where only the rats – “Opportunists Inc.” – residents of a long-sunk ship reminiscent of a country to the north of us (“the leader regressed to a mewling child”) thrive.

The most moving, harrowing poems – perhaps naturally, considering our human-canine bond – are the two about dogs. In the first, a loyal Canis Africanis obediently follows her brutish soldier-boy masters “for the sake of peace, the occasional lick of pap,/evasion of the corporal’s whimsical kick”.

In the second, the speaker drags a dead dog from the road, thinking furiously:

I want to hold someone responsible.
A neglectful owner. The trucker, chin tucked
into his cellphone, oblivious to the crunch;
or the dozing traffic cop, failing to slow the seconds;
or the merchants of pistons and tyres

But the speaker knows it’s possible for this kind of inquiry to “go too far” since “the dog in the gutter is the nature of the world”. Distractedly, the speaker finds himself casting about with exquisite ambiguity:

I’m looking around,
for something on which
to wipe my hands.

Despite the rats and road kill, there is an eerie beauty to these poems, these lessons in survival during the end-times. They are imbued with empathy and fashioned with the kind of grace (attention to the musical line and a sense of poetic completeness) that conveys a memorable dignity to the subject matter.

The animals speak both for themselves and for us. Many emerge as delightful character studies. One takes kindly to the warthog’s boast that “our rubbery snouts will outlast parliaments” and the hyena’s essential advice to “fashion a home where you are, in your sheltered burrow”.

My own favourite is the chameleon’s philosophising on fences:

Eventually they die where they stand,
wires rusting, corner-posts tottering,
the vacated palaces of ants.

Above all I love the “true dragon’s” conclusion:

…I can feel, coiling into wet, fatal
readiness behind my jaws, the single
immutable principle of this world:
Life is edible.

Slow Fires is published by Fourthwall Books.

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