The Woods Are On Fire

by Fleda Brown

University of Nebraska Press, 2017. $19.95

ReviewED by Adrian Koesters

Fleda Brown’s The Woods Are On Fire is one in the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series from the University of Nebraska Press. To have her new and selected works in a single volume is a cause for celebration.

If you are unfamiliar with her work, titles of past books like Devil’s Child and The Women Who Loved Elvis All of Their Lives might not necessarily suggest Brown is interested in subjects of place and ecology, but nothing could be farther from the truth. From the very first volume, 1988’s Fishing With Blood, she is intensely interested in everything that surrounds us—the human and the imagined and the concrete. In “Arch,” she concludes the narrative of an accidental disaster with the lines, “She thought which muscles she might have tried / if she had been the workman, suddenly needing to fly.”

Brown is, for my taste, a beautifully formal poet as well, but of course poetry by definition evokes form. But to be called a formal poet these days is to say something almost confrontational, and that is a shame. Brown’s poetry makes the case again and again: form is what the poem is, and the poem tells the form what to be. 

It’s worthwhile to look at the “new” poems (there is never enough room in a brief review to look at an entire oeuvre) to see how the trajectory and mastery continue beyond those highly skilled early poems. These strongly evoke contemporary “ecopoetics,” but reveal the ironies and bargains often struck between “the world” and “the human,” as if they were ever two separate things. The beginning, for example, of “Elegance” admits, “I thought I had hold of something elegant, a luminescent glow / on the lake, a flicker’s flash of headdress high on the tree.” 

The poet admits, oh, yes, here is the “natural” world, and here I am putting some kind of ownership to it. We all have to do that, don’t we? Can we get around it? We can try, as she implies in “Feeding the Maggots”: “. . . And look! The raccoon / has dug down on either side and up from the bottom.” The poet is just noticing, just seeing, with a small judgement of delight but without translation or ownership.

The complexities and complications of the poet who is among and yet stands back, and who understands the limits of life yet yearns and hungers for everything life has within it, are offered in The Woods Are On Fire, and the pleasures and challenges of great poetry can both be found in this necessary book by Fleda Brown.