Fire Never Sleeps

80 pages,
ISBN: 1550650718

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Lone Star Comes North
by Derek Lundy

Carla Hartsfield is a classical musician as well as a poet, and it shows. Her poems express the most raw and elemental human emotions with an elegant precision. She writes variations on the theme of pain-separation, death, loss, failure, exile, a child's religious terror-in a restrained, economical, finely calibrated style. The emotional pitch of her poetry is always close to perfect. Hartsfield was born, and grew up, in Texas. She moved to Canada in 1982. Her first book, The Invisible Moon, published in 1988, deals, in part, with childhood memories, with the pain of dislocation and exile, of adjustment to the new country, and inevitably, to the relentless winter. (The book also contains some references, rare in her work, to her day job as a musician, in poems celebrating Glenn Gould's "impeccable" Goldberg Variations, and the birthday of Mozart, music's "luminous Jupiter".)
Fire Never Sleeps is her second book, and is divided into three sections. The first one continues with the theme of Hartsfield's rural Texas childhood: the fundamentalist Protestantism, whose hellish punishments are still rooted in her subconscious; a mother's harsh regime of fear and dominance; an emotionally scarred and distant father who blows his finger off with a rifle; the high school classmates who remain strangers to her, and who try to straighten their hair with rubber bands and orange juice cans. It works for some;
.For others,
it left a little dent
in their foreheads like
they'd had a lobotomy.

There is a startling dissonance between this remote world where Hartsfield painfully grew up, and her present urban and urbane life. But of course, the connections are intact; the effects of Waxahachie, Texas are inescapable in Montreal and Toronto. In the book's first poem, "Helldreams", Hartsfield remembers the "hellfire preacher" railing about sin, guilt, the literal everlasting fires of hell. She recalls her baptism at the age of eight:

When I entered the water
I spread stiff wings
like an angel,
took flight
in my baptism
of fear.

The fear drives her to a dutiful fundamentalism: memorizing whole Bible chapters, singing in the revival choir. When, at sixteen, she nearly drowns, part of her believes she had it coming. And even now, her shower seems to spout baptismal water, and to talk to her.

Today I hear
you're washed
in the blood
of the Lamb.
I look down
and see my body
scorched by water.

The final poem of this section, "Sweepstakes", is about Hartsfield's inability to travel anywhere without getting sick with various bugs that have alarming effects on her bowels. This ode to Kaopectate seems to be incongruously shoe-horned in here, but Hartsfield shows that she can be funny too. She'd hoped that moving to Canada from Texas would somehow "re-polarize" her, get her more accustomed to "different food, water, environments". But no:

I continue my
intimate relationships
with foreign pharmacies
and hotel balconies.

The rest of Fire Never Sleeps shows that Hartsfield has made her adjustments to northern weather and reticence; she describes the life of a settled inhabitant. In the book's second section, she writes with sadness, indignation, resignation, ferocity, about the failure of her marriage, therapy, affairs, and her struggle to hold her life together. Three of the poems take as their starting points extracts from Sylvia Plath's Journals (although the quotations that accompanied the poems "Flames" and "Leaving", when they were originally published, have been omitted in the book).
These poems about pain are painful to read. There's nothing unusual about Hartsfield's experience-the lives of most of us seem to break apart at some time or other when relationships falter or die. But I found her poetic formulation of the experience to be unsettling and moving. These poems shook me up.
In "Pruning", she tends a rosebush in spring that she had planted on her wedding day. The plant becomes a conventional metaphor-redeemed by the poet's incisive eloquence-for her moribund marriage.

Here is the evidence
awaiting dismemberment.
In the thinning of winter
I cut, cut
for a heartbeat.

In "Radio Play", Hartsfield's own breakup is intertwined with an imaginative rendition of Plath's slide from marital betrayal to suicide. Hartsfield drives her car around to calm down. But,

The expressway veers
into a sky
containing two lives:
one part before the break,
blue and clear.
The second part
bears the weight
of a thousand clouds.
And like a steel door
locks me away.

The book's third and final section is a relief. The poems unclench. I found myself breathing easy, feeling happy for the poet, as she described, not happiness, but at least some measure of acceptance and serenity. In "Sunset", she concludes:

Perhaps I'll let you
inhabit my body,
though you
may never love me.
The soul, alone,
can't be fingerprinted.
And lust rolls by like
credits at a movie.
Even these bluenotes
riding on top
of the evening
will escape
without a trace.

In "Double Eclipse", Hartsfield describes losing herself in her lover's being and body (although this is not a wholehearted surrender-she records her ambivalence about her desire even as she craves it). "Quantum Lunch" is an ecstatic prose poem about mutual falling in love-musician with scientist. There are lyrical meditations on the train station in Gananoque, a Stratford drive-in movie theatre, a painting by Richter. Pain always seems close by, however. In "Scissors", she describes the mental disintegration and attempted suicide of one of her students-a beautiful young Korean-Canadian woman-that began with the student mutilating scores and her own hair during her lessons.
Hartsfield's lyrical gifts, scrupulous style, and intelligence make her, and our, examination of her life absorbing. Like most of us, she's had her own rough ride to where she is now-perhaps hers has been rougher than most. Having made her poetic acquaintance, I'm impatient to find out what she'll make of her life next, and how she'll tell me about it.

Derek Lundy is a Toronto writer.


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