Review of Many Small Fires by Charlotte Pence
Brooklyn: Black Lawrence Press, 2015. 75 pp. $13.95, paper.
Divided into three sections, Charlotte Pence's newest book of poetry, Many Small Fires, explores the pain of coming to terms with a sexually abusive childhood at the hands of a schizophrenic father. The second section is a version of Pence's previous chapbook, The Braches, The Axe, The Missing, and while this segment explores the speaker's healing process, the new sections serve as eye-opening bookends to the speaker's story and illustrate what comes before and what comes after such a difficult journey. Throughout this collection, the speaker travels far across the globe to countries she had only pointed to as a child, but learns that her past is not something that she can escape, but rather, it follows her like a shadow, turning up in places she least expects. Instead, she must learn to confront her memories, name them, and only then, can she begin the process toward understanding and healing.
The first poem foreshadows this progression as the speaker and her father have an argument about the content of her poetry before they become estranged. He says, "This house. Our family. / You and me. You think it's everything." They are at odds about what matters in the world and what is worth remembering and recording on paper, but the lines are chilling when the reader discovers what exactly the relationship is between the speaker and her father, the "You and me." He dismisses the troubling things that happen within the walls of their house, saying only, "Charlotte, that's yesterday," when in reality, these memories are still very much alive in the present, and their relationship and all of its ugliness is, in fact, everything.
These memories rear their heads during unexpected moments afterwards and in places far from the speaker's childhood home. In "Architecture of the Veil," the speaker observes the streets from a hotel roof in Jakarta and looks at the wonders below, the "minarets, cannons fashioned // into fountains," but then her eyes rest on a detail no one else seems to see, a space where "two mangoes rot // while green on the tree." The fruit should be thriving as it is connected to its life source, but instead, is poisoned by what should be nourishing it, a connection very much like the one she shares with her father.
This poison is one that she shuns as an adult, evading any kind of reflection into her past, even avoiding mirrors while observing a funeral procession in the poem, "Pig and a Bottle." During the funeral ceremony, "the coffin shimmers / under the spread of red silk hand-stitched with one-inch / mirrors. If I approached, I'd see pieces / of myself." The mirrors are everything she is afraid to remember, reflections of herself as a child, memories sharp and jagged and capable only of inflicting pain.
These recollections are as cutting in the present as the day she first experienced them. In "The Diagnosis: Paranoid Schizophrenia," she remembers back to when her father was first diagnosed, and the assortment of medications he was prescribed: "Haldol, Trilafon, / Prolizin ... // Abilify, the sexy Saphris, // and her fat twin Thiothixene...nothing / will work for twenty percent of people like you, / 'treatment resistant,' one therapist admitted." As the speaker runs down the list of failed treatments, her language becomes more direct as the focus shifts from medications to the man for whom those medications would not help—her father. The poem ends with her father struggling against his doctors in a hospital, "yelling. And they are hovering / all of them hovering, the flower and the hall, // the coats and the carts, the machine / outside the window and the gun-round-growl / of its blades that will not, will not stop." The poem is overwhelming, but necessarily so, because it parallels the speaker's own struggle to escape—to be free of anything that reminds her of her father—but much like the "gun-round-growl" outside the window, her past will always be lurking, its blades as sharp and cutting as ever.
The dark presence of her father's mental illness and abuse, while ugly and frightening, is one that she eventually understands will always be with her, so she must stop trying to avoid her past and instead, face it head-on as the truth. In "Eight Family Snapshots," she establishes a dialogue with herself and forces herself to look at her family snapshots for what they are, saying, "Stop it. Say it straight." In doing so, she confronts her anger, and the unfortunate reality that wherever she goes, he will be there, too, a specter of days she longs to forget. She acknowledges this, saying "That is why when I walk into a room, I turn / around to see if I need to hold the door open for a wild-toed / man in a black coat, rushing in before it closes." His presence is unwelcome, but yet he is there, a piece of her past that she cannot separate from herself.
This type of connection is one that she illustrates in the final poem, "Argument (2)," a poem that mirrors the first in this collection, except that the relationship changes from the "You and me" in the first poem to "we." Her father echoes a command that he states several times in the collection, saying, "I've told you a / hundred times: don't you ever bury me in this ground," except that she cannot bury him, or rather, she cannot bury the memories of him without burying a part of herself also. Instead, she replies, "This is the only story we know, the story we keep telling. How it / all falls. How it all ends. A slow descent. A piling of dirt over face." The grave becomes one that will house not only her father, but a piece of her, too, along with her past and all of its memories. In concluding the collection with these lines, the speaker illustrates the undeniable power of one's past and the process necessary to make peace with the darkness that may lurk there.
As such, Many Small Fires stands as a stunning achievement describing the complexities of relationships and its long-term effects. In her author's note, Pence writes that these connections are much like fire in that while necessary for survival, these fires can also be deadly as they are for the speaker and her father. These revelations are devastating, but even so, Pence demonstrates beauty that can still arise from it all—the beauty of endurance and survival in the face of such hardships—making Many Small Fires a compelling read and Pence's most brilliant work yet.
You can purchase Many Small Fires here.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she served as the fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her work has appeared in PANK, Bellingham Review, and Weave Magazine. Her first novel, A House Made of Stars, is forthcoming from Burlesque Press in 2015.