Chelsea Dingman

After the Village of Lytton Disappears Amid Lightning Strikes & Wildfires

What the fire took. Almost as if born there:
the animal sounds

made of the pines as they burned. Much like women
I’ve known, razed from within

and raising others even still. What good is it to stand
still? To meet any death where one stands

is to be caged in a story
where nothing survives. Not fire. Not even the story.

Black dawn belying any life left in the sky.

*

It is almost evening somewhere
& I’m trying to forgive myself
for the dream I keep having in which my body
doesn’t survive. Last night in my sleep, cancer
lit up my left side. My breast, hard
with cysts. A boy I once knew stood
crying in a shoulderless street, street
sweepers slowly passing him by.

It feels useless to say I am not proud
of dying, though it’s what I have
worked toward my whole life. Not proud
of this fear, like the shill of wind
again & again spilling through the leaves
as I sit on the porch & envy
that part of nature that makes another
possible, the leaves strewn
about the yard, my life on fire
& nowhere anyone to blame
for what this will all come to. The window
glass holding only a glance of ruin. Not
the hard bits of stars, but what broke them.

*

Imagine that we know before being told

what the fire will take: spiderwebs

& Queen Anne’s lace & generations

of pines. The mayday tree in the yard after a loader

cut its roots last year—dead on the inside.

Deer & other uncountable nouns. The quiet

inside the daffodil’s trumpet. That vigilance

when a thought can be translated into time. Others,

asleep on their backs. Eternal life. The conditions

you used to believe kept you alive, now scorned

as the leaves when they fail to catch fire.

*

It has been years, or weeks, since I trusted
water, such as that creek

that flowed through my father
as he died

or the terrible river
my brother drank when illness

& abuse were all the weapons he had
to live by. Sometimes, I like

to use the verb abscond
as an adjective. Meaning: something

that is hidden from sight.
Like a life

when it errs from its beginning
to the sound of a rope

skipping while on fire.  
And there is no one

left alive to tell us
we survived.

*

Not yet bare are the lodgepole pines. Not yet
brazen as this lie

I’ve been telling about my life
& what I’d hoped to find

when I wrote to you from Stockholm
to say that I couldn’t live

without writing. That the pines
were staring at me

so intently that I knew failure
& how friendless

one becomes in the middle
of one’s life. Each day,

a new funeral, a new fire.
A new lightning strike out west

where I was born, whole towns
burnt down. And nothing that matters

as much anymore. Or is that the cynicism
of privilege? Sitting on a deck

waiting to hear what has befallen
someone else. Waiting

to be incensed. My brother,
turning himself in

after totaling his car. He got a lawyer,
but there will be no trial

except the one in which he must
save his own life. That stalled moment

when he picked up a drink
& became again a child—

the sound of fire in the distance
only a hush. A rumour

of angels that nest inside us
with nowhere to hide.

*

If each story has an infinite number
of deaths & feathers & steep ravines, each
morning allows the wren to sweep

the sky clean while I learn
to lean into hum of the kettle
on the stove. Impatient wind, still

battering the windows & birch
trees & bones of the burned
owl that pearl the earth

at my back. Where I am may not exist.
I don’t know. But the conditions
of a life are such that the wren

arrives through soot & cloud
carrying the sky as though a godhead
and no one asks why. Why

this poverty of intention. Privation
of reason. My brother has $2.15
in his bank account. He buys bread,

stands in new lines. It takes all I have
not to offer help
which isn’t help. Here, the mirrors

displace us. Like bats
using echolocation, we’ve looked
for a mirrored response

in others to feel our way home
with our lives. It’s dark today,
smoke filtering over the borders

between provinces. Little changes
if I don’t let it. A rope skips
in my mind. It touches the street

& I am almost whole inside
that tension. The birch trees
hide behind the sky to teach me

I am waiting to become sky—
not earth, but echo & storm
& cirrus cloud. Embargoed

by angels. A few days after
my father died unexpectedly,
I stood in the wind

as his body was committed
to fire. I asked to be anything
but alive. Nothing answered

except this life that goes on
as though time is a stitch
of lightning engraved on the sky,

& stillness is how we self-locate
when we are its prey.
Or worse, prayer. As fire

thins until it leaps out of you,
or I, or the cage of this story,
& forgives itself

for its hunger. Only here
will the wren abide. Navigating
what the fire kept alive.


Chelsea Dingman‘s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second poetry collection, Through a Small Ghost, won The Georgia Poetry Prize (University of Georgia Press, 2020). She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018)Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.