Necessary Fire by KMA Sullivan
Black Lawrence Press, 2015; 86 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman


Necessary Fire has informed me that marshmallow torches are things that exist, and it is a book of consequences. Doubtless, the word “consequences” implies first “negative” in our contemporary minds, and we combat this, for ourselves and in the guidance of younger generations, by neutralizing the word—“But there can be positive consequences too!”—yet we go on relying on “consequences” primarily in the context of punishment or comeuppance or “learning from our mistakes;” why can’t we think of our punishments, what we inevitably go through, as neutral, why frame them as regrettable or destructive? KMA Sullivan’s poems: complicate “consequences,” show us internal and external ways of living with consequences, point out that we not only live the effects of our choices—ecstatic-making or numbing—but that we live in a heavy crossfire of everyone else’s consequences, and those chain reactions bump into one another, get tangled, mutate, and amplify.

More concretely, these are poems of parenthood, of adoption, of endurance, they are elegies and jubilations, odes to intimacy and pleas for sense, or calm, and they constantly land on a truth it seems we forget too easily, or in which we forget to bask: whatever other bodies and loves we have, they become or have always been all we have. These poems collect discoveries and moments in which the humans nearest us repeatedly save us and drive us off, they suggest the core of our human relationships: we, the rubber ball, bounce away and return to our loved ones, bounce away and return, always tethered by something ungovernable, something fleshy and crazy-making and forceful.

Necessary Fire collects the necessary fire of our daily living, beginning mid-thrash,

I’ll start with the way my youngest rubs the center of my forehead with his thumb when I need to calm down or he’s about to ask for an advance on his allowance so he can buy weed or a permanent marker for Emily who will cover his forearms in viney tattoos and has invited him to work the river this summer…

and not relenting, even through its final lines,

listen to my story if you like
and sure, if you like
I’ll listen to yours

from the closing poem, “Stand Here If You Like,” letting the fire burn on by reminding us readers that we won’t have understood everything, that we’ve learned a great deal, but that not understanding is an importance, that listening is essential to this human thing we’ve got going on, essential for some kind of survival.

In all, yes, these poems are about family and sanity and a truer sense of love than its more common everyday, overplayed, oversimplified variety, but it’s concerned with a part of what it means to be human that we’re usually so ready to ignore or forget, the state of being awake (not literally, but the metaphorical awakeness, alertness)—this takes work, and Sullivan does that work, shows us how we might do that work too. These poems challenge us to compassion (verb), to empathize, to notice and welcome what we notice. While all of these poems collect trinkets of lives, the pieces near the end, especially, radiate something fierce: “River’s Bend,” “In Montecavolo, Italy There Is a Bank Filled With Cheese,” “Opening Song,” and “Left Staggering,” the last of which still rages in my memory. [Spoiler Alert] The speaker seems to be referring to herself in that third person way we all do from time to time (maybe not that much of a spoiler):

I knew a mother who went to the store
for orange juice and just kept driving—
past the karate studio, the soccer field,
her husband’s understanding.

She left in search of a moment, a closet
without wrapping paper and curling ribbon, a table
not covered in permission slips for the zoo,
a room with a quiet shelf…

                                    The wind might fill her again
in places gutted by church hospitality committees
and Boy Scout merit badge ceremonies.

Even in the account of escaping, the speaker is among the thoughts and routines and familiarity of every day’s onslaught and demand, and time passes in a funny way here, a heartbreaking way, a way that feels more real and familiar than most other poems and stories we’re given; try these poems on.