Prescribed Burn

by James Brock

I. What is a little fire but destabilization?

        Even neutrinos—those mad confederated
waves, hybrid muon, tau, and pure electron,
                oscillating, that shock through everything

        material, through light, heat, paper,
through Toby, the bull African elephant
                of the Cincinnati Zoo, through Virginia

        Woolf’s ashes, through the sun’s
own core—the neutrinos themselves
                would amount to nothing if it weren’t

        for those aberrant manifestations that
momentarily hold mass and then let
                it go, those reckless, impulsive

        lottery winners who buy the store and
give away all the Barbie dolls to thieves
                and musicians just because they

        can, once more nearly penniless, happy,
going back to the 7-11 and buying a new
                ticket. Of the safe, respectable, constant

        neutrinos, no fire then, for sure, no star stew,
no combustion, just a cool, interminable
                equilibrium, silence, a sure baseline.

II. Where have you secreted your pyromania?

        Funny, it’s play with matches, so that
in your backyard, piling leaves
                and sticks, near your father’s picket

        fence, fire becomes a game of light
and color, an improvised smokiness,
                a music of tinder cracking. Forget

        Prometheus. Forget witchcraft.
Forget the physics of accelerated decay
                and released energy. It’s a matter

        of blowing into the roots of fire,
letting the fire recover, burn hotter,
                and then blowing again, until the fire

        itself takes over, and you can rest
from the dizziness, watch the flames
                lick the panels of wood, and climb.

III. Is every fire a political act?

        The slowest fires, the coolest ones,
burn the most completely. Isn’t that
                the political theory of the prescribed

        burn: selectively and coolly to scorch
the underbrush, ideally in thirteen
                year cycles, to manage balance?

        O Healthy Forest Initiative! Give
me an ignition spit and pail, a drum
                of Chevron-Texaco refined combustive,

        and a box of matches! Light aflame
the Patriot Act, the Economic Stimulus
                Packages of 2001 and 2003, the Federal

        Communications Commission mandates,
the National Defense Policy papers,
                the game plans of the RNC and DNC,

        but let no flames burn any books, for every
word is healthy, fire-proof in the Library
                of Congress. But why not a little healthy burn

        of Microsoft, Time-Warner, Disney,
and Fox? of ADM, HP, IBM, GE, and
                McD? of universities and their colleges

        of education, business, communication,
and hospitality management and their
                departments of English? of gated

        communities? of retirement accounts, stock
portfolios, and cash-on-hand? of SUVs and
                bridges? of medical prescriptions and

        research and development offices? of
Halliburton and Bechtel and their vaults?
                of the blueprints to everything?

IV. Why should you prevent forest fires?

        The speed of fire is a simple equation,
a curve a good 11th-grade student
                could express. But more exact is

        the equation to cheat an insurance
company, to win back an investment
                with a little vengeance. Think of

        Mickey Rourke warning William Hurt
against arson in Body Heat, and
                of course, Hurt burns everything

        and murders Richard Crenna. Or
rather, think of the film itself
                of Body Heat, burning itself up,

        cracking and fading, three hundred years
from now, or think of the DVD itself
                of Body Heat, unloosening its digital

        coding, the binary relations ashened,
one thousand years from now. It is
                the vanity of self-immolation that

        I can’t stand, the shower of the accelerant
over the body, the striking of the match,
                and then the poof of holiness:

        the concentration and silence against
the flesh as it drips in tiny globes
                of flame. That way is one answer,

        to burn away the self, cleansing
the corruption, to do something. Too
                much burning for God, for money,

        for love, unless you are the Elvis,
American-sainted, draped in your Phoenix
                cape, red-sequined and diamond-studded,

        and you turn your back to your audience,
raise your arms, and behind you, you
                can hear women faint from the heat.

James Brock’s fourth book of poetry, Gods & Money, will be published by WordTech Editions in 2010. For his poetry, he has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alex Haley Foundation. He teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.