Our God is a Consuming Fire: Fourteen Reflections on Joanna Pearson’s “The Arsonists in Love”

July 1, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Benjamin Myers on “The Arsonists in Love” by Joanna Pearson


If Joanna Pearson’s poem had a theme song, it would be Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which I listened to for almost twenty hours straight, locked in my bedroom at sixteen, staring at the flimsy brown wood paneling between the posters on my wall, after my first girlfriend dumped me, but which I also still think is a superb song.

This poem takes off with a conflagration of sound: “We lusted after luster, lit our fill.” The alliteration calls to mind the first lick of flame as a fire begins. The movement from low vowels to high is a kind of igniting whoosh that gives the poem energetic propulsion. The vowels and consonants continue to crackle and pop with heat throughout the rest of the poem, creating a sustained onomatopoeia, a technique sometimes utilized in poems about jazz or about modern machinery, but used with startling originality to conjure up a fire in Pearson’s poem. This is a poem for reading aloud, for recitation late, late in the night when you sit in the circle of the last people to leave the party.

In high school, I had a friend whose favorite party trick was to spray his jeans with hairspray and light them on fire. He particularly liked to light his crotch. I can still smell the sweet hairspray turning to acrid flame, see the stone-washed marbling take flame and oddly illuminate his torso and face. We all knew it must be a metaphor for something. I don’t know where that friend is now.

Fourteen lines of ten syllables each gives the sonnet such a boxy look, which is absolutely perfect for this house on fire. Pearson’s assonances are like tongues of flame arching out from windows and cracks in the siding. I love to watch this poem burn.

The English sonnet is often referred to as the “Shakespearean sonnet,” but the form was actually first used by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Still, we call it the “Shakespearean sonnet.” Surrey got screwed.

I love a good line break. I have heard that term challenged, the idea being that, in carefully constructed poetry, we don’t “break” a line but rather end it fittingly, either with or against the syntax. But witness this: “as if we could make love / destroy itself.” That line is beautifully broken.

There is, perhaps, a bit of Gerard Manly Hopkins behind this poem. I think, naturally, of “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.”

I’m drawn to the image of the lintels cracking like wishbones. There is something very compelling about the tension between the warm, homey connotations of Thanksgiving dinner and the destructiveness of the criminal act at the heart of the poem. Unless, of course, your family Thanksgivings already bordered on, or descended into, criminal acts. Then I suppose rather than interestingly tense, the image is more simply apropos. Either way it is a heck of an image.

While I’m on the topic of imagery, I’d like to say something about the ending of the poem. It’s splendid the way Pearson draws the reader into the imaginative action of the poem, asking the reader to help imagine a form for the “blotting shape” that looms above her characters. The image is somehow both vivid and ambiguous, and that ambiguity gives the poem a sort of open-endedness that is perhaps rare in sonnets. You might even say that Pearson solves a significant problem in postmodern formalist poetics here, managing to give the sonnet form its particular kind of closure and yet maintain postmodern resistance to closure. That all sounds rather academic, but the upshot is that the end of the poem is all the more moving for the way it tugs us, like a difficult relationship, back and forth between a sense of ending and a sense of going on.

This according to Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert: “Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?”

Sometimes it scares me how much I love my wife. I would burn a house down if she needed me to.

Even if it is a less arduous task to rhyme the Shakespearean (or, shall I say, Surrean) sonnet than it is to rhyme its more ornate and Italianate cousin, the Petrarchan sonnet, it is still no small feat. Pearson achieves the rhyme scheme of the sonnet with grace, particularly with rhymes like “joist” with “rejoiced” and “cracked” with “act.” Such rhymes keep the form tight aurally but surprise the eye, another form of tension in this carefully fraught poem.

“It was a flagrant act / to burn the place we lived. . . .” Brilliant diction! (flagrant from the Latin, flagare, “to burn”).

“Love, love will tear us apart . . . again. . . .”

Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers’ latest book is Lapse Americana (NYQ Books, 2013), and he won the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry for his first book, Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). Besides 32 Poems, his work may be read in Poetry Northwest, Measure, The New York Quarterly, Devil’s Lake, and many other journals. His poem, “Spook House,” was recently featured on Verse Daily, and several of his poems have been featured in the Everyday Poems newsletter. He frequently reviews books of contemporary poetry and books on poetics for World Literature Today. A native of central Oklahoma, he was educated at the University of the Ozarks and at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently the Crouch-Mathis Associate Professor of Literature at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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