Al Maginnes

What Fire Writes on Water

By now the burning river is history’s cliché, abstract enough

to be urban myth,

                             but it is truth as well.

There is film if you want to find it, if imagination

will not offer those flames, their body a raft

on black water, a soft mass fed by chemicals

and surface trash. But neither imagination

or the clinical documentaries of film can substitute

for witness,

                   the thin smoke scorching your sinuses,

your eyes watering with benzene fumes, all you see

wavering. Your lungs threaten to blossom into flame.


*       *       *


If we live in a world where fire might take root

on a field of water, I tell my students,

                                                               then we live

in a world where anything is possible. So write

as if you are the thing unexpectedly on fire, as though

the tablet where you scrawl your words is dissolving

and you must finish whatever is being said. Write

like you don’t know your middle name, write with

the recklessness of the imprisoned girl who, denied

pen and paper, gouged poems into bars of soap,

memorizing each fractured line as she scratched,


washed her hands before dawn with that soap,

her clean hands, the soap’s lingering perfume the only evidence.


*          *          *


To see those books written, forget everything. Become

the motel room in east Tennessee where I woke to take

a sad inventory of scuffed walls, nicotined curtains

staring at me where I lay on a mattress thinned

by the weight of 10,000 bodies before mine. Burns printed

each piece of furniture. My unfinished drink rested

on a table. A book I had not opened the night before lay beside it.

For some reason I opened the drawer that always holds

the Bible in such rooms. The good book was there

right next to a pack of rolling papers. The inside

of the drawer was graffitied with the names

of travelers, with dates and destinations. I started

to write my own name but stopped, suddenly convinced

that anything I wrote would draw one more line

through a life already too fond of nameless travel,

the erasures that wash clean given enough distance.


*          *          *


For a year I lived elbow to elbow with a guy who changed

his last name every few months. Finally we just called him

Steve Alias.    

                     He claimed to be wanted in California

or Colorado, and maybe he was. He showed up in our town,

found a couch to crash on, then another one, then a room

in a house where some friends of mine lived, found jobs

and ways to cash his paychecks from those jobs—say what you would

about him, and there was plenty to say, he would work

and work hard.

                        Finally he burned someone foolish enough

to front him money for a lot of dope, and he vanished

across the humming surface of a highway, shrinking

into cold pulses of neon, rainbows circles of oil

rain draws from asphalt, fugitive again

as he fled the old laws of friendship and betrayal,

in love with the act of fleeing, just as fire will

always love being fire, and water remains water.


*          *          *


I have tried to write Steve’s story. The truth

            is hard to know or tell. Easier to live

as he did, in a fiction invented by each step

            forward. A year after Steve’s vanishing,

almost no one spoke his name. And no one wished

            anything but pain and distance for him.


I have nearly drowned, and once I woke

            to find my front porch on fire. I’ve betrayed

a few friends, but none so thoroughly

            as Steve Alias did. I chopped away

the burning pieces of my porch, soaked down

            the smoking wood before the fire truck arrived

and stood there believing—as Steve must have

            when he got wherever he was going, pockets filled

with other people’s money—that I was salvaged

once more, a cat reclaiming its lives.


*          *          *


It’s hard not to get sidetracked. Maybe Steve wrote

his most recent name or the one before that on the wall

of a room transients move through like air.

Somewhere a river roils with chemicals

from a paper mill, a refinery or plastics factory.

If you want to write, you must court

the combustion, must try to find something

beautiful in a burning river. You must not

turn away. You must want to walk in,

to wade closer to such horror. You have to be willing

to risk burning and drowning at the same time.

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