From the first poem in the collection After So Many Fires by Jeremiah Webster, you know you’ve entered a landscape different from so many contemporary collections. There is no irony, no cast of a jaundiced eye or air of boredom and disillusionment, no personal angst or confession.
Instead, in the poem “Credo,” we discover the immense discomfort of attempting to live a structured life in a world gone mad: “There is the torching: / novels, martyrs, torching / of twenty-one centuries as the world falls apart. / I study my books / as the world falls apart.”
It’s a sense of being a stranger in a strange land, of creating a life in a world that has seemed to have gone mad. It’s a madness that runs through our language, our technology, our culture—all of the things we construct to make sense of the world around us.
With simple language and images, Webster has constructed a collection that resonates over and over again. He juxtaposes nature and technology, mixes faith and hope with stories from the Associated Press, ponders how many whales had to die to provide the oil for the light by which Emily Dickinson wrote her poems, and considers how poets are the only ones who after death remain in their line of earthly work . And fish, and the symbol of fish, become part of the ritual in this brave new world.
I abandon all expectation
as winter crows fly regardless
of food outside my window.
To wait without hope
is not the same as despair.
I wave on my way past the suicides,
listen to the hum of my voice mosey
off into the maples and by the stream,
where all manner of fish shimmer
to remain in their world.
Webster is an associate professor of English at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. He received his B.A. and M.I.T. degrees from Whitworth University, an M.F.A. degree from Eastern Washington University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. After So Many Fires is his first collection of poetry. He has also written introductions for collections by T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats.
Even with all the madness, Webster still finds hope in this world. After So Many Fires is ultimately a hopeful work, one that understands what light glimmers amid the madness.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish