Trevor Joyce: Let them eat fire

the poem, then a brief essay

The Fishers Fished

dark within darkness
let them approach
that dry estuary
whose waterless wave
brings down
the gravel of worlds
to a bed of sand
because the diamond
is feeble and restless

leave them be guided
to the motionless storm
by the evidence of trees
and mineral structures tumbling
slowly through the hushed light
so they may see
this still disturbance
reach deep within the wrenched metals
making them whole

have them discover
flame without fire
where it adjusts itself
brooding on wood and stone
that they may bind
apes and lower vertebrates
and lay them under its blue claws
and later gather them again
unharmed and whimpering

they may set
nets below
the fish leaps
nets above
the fowl flies by
fires within
the flame scorns
through stone
or settling
in the open sky

then they are snared by water
wind devastates their dreams
and fire nests savagely
above the derelict jaw

Trevor Joyce, With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold, 157-58

        Trevor Joyce’s parable of the exploitation of nature reads like a ritualistic curse, such as those found in Psalms. Compare, for example, its imperative formulations (“let them approach . . . leave them be guided . . . have them discover”) with the petitions against enemies found in Psalms (“let them be put to shame,” “let them be turned back”). In Joyce’s poem, the speaker first petitions an unnamed power to let humans see the beneficent forces of nature. The second part of the poem is where the curse packs its punch: if humans continue to abuse nature, they will taste its destructive forces.
        The poem’s paradoxical images of nature (“waterless wave,” “motionless storm,” “flame without fire”) are not ordinary phenomena but rather nature’s destructive powers transformed into agents of healing. First, the “waterless wave” lays gravel onto a bed of sand (as opposed to breaking down the gravel into sand) because the diamond, a symbol of wealth, has grown “feeble and restless.” (Of the three images, that one is the most elusive, and I’m not convinced that mine is the best reading.) Next, the “motionless storm” permeates the metals that have been “wrenched” from the earth by greedy humans and makes those metals “whole” again. And lastly, the “flame without fire” binds all life forms from apes to lower vertebrates (humans, the true destructive agent in the poem, being significantly absent) and casts a spell on them with the “blue claws” of its healing flame, later “gather[ing] them again / unharmed and whimpering.”
        Thus in the first part, the speaker asks that the fishers bear witness to each of the three acts of healing. In the second part, he places a spell or curse on the fishers, who try in vain to net fish and fowl, which easily evade the nets. Now it is the fishers who are acted upon by the forces of nature, but this time the water, wind, and fire are not so benevolent. Instead, water “snares” the fishers (who were just thwarted from snaring fish and fowl), wind destroys their ambitions, and fire “savagely” makes its nest (an echo of the birds unsuccessfully caught) in the mouth of the fisher (bringing to mind the hook in a fish’s mouth).
        Thus if the fishers continue their exploitative ways, their fate will be similar to that of the fishes and birds they have caught: in the end, they themselves will be snared and hooked. The title’s double meaning is apparent: “the fishers fished” can be both a sentence in the active voice, in which the fisher does the fishing, or a phrase in which “fished” modifies “fisher.” In a twist of poetic justice, the fisher fishes, and is in turn fished.

Camille Martin

One response to “Trevor Joyce: Let them eat fire

  1. Pingback: Roundup: Poetry Close Readings and Appreciations « Rogue Embryo

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