The ambition of Many Small Fires would be impressive in any poetry book, but is even more so for being Charlotte Pence’s first full-length collection. The poems combine a serious exploration of ecology with an unflinching consideration of the poet’s schizophrenic father. If the collection has a leitmotif, it’s Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a persistent reminder that only the strongest survive. This astonishing book takes a hard look at how mental illness affects those who love—or are expected to love—the patient.
“My childhood chore was to shoo away ghosts Dad didn’t like,” Pence writes in “Bardo (I).” The child
does the best she can with this responsibility, one of many and by no means the most challenging, as
she notes in “The Branches, the Axe, the Missing”:
She does not know
how to spell
Pedophilia she learned
in third grade.
Nowhere is the collusion of science and personal history more evident than in the book’s second section, a long meditation on evolution and family in which the poet leads us through a whirlwind tour of how we have changed and are changing as a species. As Pence explains in her helpful introduction to Many Small Fires, “The book’s second section brings in facts regarding our evolution from upright but ape-like species to what we are now: fast-fingered lovers of light (fire, electricity, computer chips, cell phones), community (virtual, real, connected by memories, motives, and DNA) and motion (planes, cars, bikes, anything that allows us to leave and return).” If that seems like a tall order, it is. In these pages, science augments rather than obscures the personal details, showing us what humans—not to mention Australopithecines—have in common.
In general, the audience for poetry is urged to make a distinction between the “speaker” of a poem and the poet herself. Here, however, the poet breaks down such distances, letting us know that it is her own father who is schizophrenic, her own father who is homeless because of his disease. The result is a collection that is powerful for both its craft and its honesty. Pence’s introduction urges readers interested in helping the homeless to support the Housing First approach, a philosophy that provides shelter and support without requiring markers of readiness. As Pence explains, this initiative has saved more lives and (perhaps unexpectedly) more money than conventional approaches to the problem of homelessness. It is rare to find a poetry collection that is so transparent in its vested interest in the subject matter. Because of her introduction, we trust Pence before we even read the first poem.
The foreboding tone of Many Small Fires may not be uncommon in contemporary poetry, but this book is set apart by the full realization of that uneasiness. And while disappointment is central to the collection, Pence also offers slivers of hope—or if not quite of hope, then at least understanding. Her meticulous research provides an appropriate lens through which a traumatic childhood can make a kind of sense. Survival of the fittest means that, at the very least, someone or something survives. A black bear with his head stuck in a plastic candy jar is given a second chance: “[I]f there were such a thing / as heaven,” Pence writes, “wouldn’t it be the moment the jar // was removed, that rush of autumn air on his face?” Many Small Fires offers this kind of relief, a gratitude that follows suffering.
[To read an excerpt from Many Small Fires, click here.]
Erica Wright is the author of a new crime novel, The Red Chameleon, as well as two poetry collections. Now a senior editor at Guernica, she grew up in Wartrace, Tennessee, and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University.